A small Islamic sect has been the target of violent attacks and is at the center of a national debate in Indonesia over religious freedom. As Chad Bouchard reports from Jakarta, recent restrictions on the Ahmadiyah sect could signal a shift in government policy toward radical Islamists in a country traditionally known for its tolerance.

Over the past few months violence against followers of Ahmadiyah has increased in Indonesia. In a bid to ease tensions, on June 9 the government imposed restrictions on the sect, effectively banning it.

That is raising questions about the direction of a country traditionally known for moderate Islam and a philosophy of inclusion for its diverse cultures.

A new report by the International Crisis Group says that hard-line Islamic groups have pushed their agenda into the government's decision making.

ICG Southeast Asia Project Director John Virgoe says though the groups represent a small minority of public opinion, their members are influential.

"Some of these radical groups, who don't attract a lot of support, nonetheless seem to be having a disproportionate impact on government policy," he said.  "And seem to be able to push these hard line and intolerant measures, and get the government to react in a way that is really unfortunate for Indonesia's reputation as a tolerant society."

Ahmadis follow most of the practices and beliefs as mainstream Islam, but consider their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a prophet.

The sect came to Indonesia around 80 years ago, and its members claim about 500,000 followers here.

Most Muslims consider Ahmadiyah to be heretical.  And since its founding over 100 years ago, its members have been the target of violence in several Muslim-majority countries.

A fervent crowd in Jakarta last month shouted "outlaw Ahmadiyah."  The rally was held by the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) the country's top authority on Islam.

Violence against followers first erupted here in 2005 after the MUI declared the sect to be deviant.  Extremists later torched hundreds of Ahmadi homes on Lombok Island.

Several Ahmadiyah mosques in Indonesia have been attacked or burned over the past few months.

And last month, a crowd of moderate Muslims and interfaith leaders were attacked during a march for religious tolerance June first.

The restrictions imposed by the Indonesian government have angered moderate Islamic and human rights groups.

Amidhan, the deputy chairman of the MUI, says he is sorry to see violence erupt, but it is right to restrict the group.

He says the group should stop claiming it is part of Islam, and try to become recognized as a separate religion as its members did in Pakistan. Then they would be just like the Hindu or Christian minorities. But, he says, Ahmadis here do not want that.

He adds that what he calls liberal Muslims want to emulate America or Europe, where religions like Christianity have many sects.  He says that Christianity can have a lot of sects, but Islam cannot.

Ahmadiyah spokesman Shamsir Ali says the government's decision has driven the sect's members into hiding.

He says Ahmadis are terrified, because people have threatened to attack them and kill them.  He says life has become very difficult since the decision, and the group had hoped to be protected by, instead of disbanded by, the government.

The International Crisis Group report draws ties between MUI and radical foreign Islamist groups.  Among them is a secretive organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir, which uses political means to push for countries with large Muslim populations to unite under one leadership.

John Virgoe says the move to restrict Ahmadiyah came from groups working within MUI, which has gained political power under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who sought their support after winning election in 2004.

"He's ceded power and influence to this body called the MUI, the Indonesia Ulema Council, effectively giving them the ability to set government policy on religious matters," he noted.  "And this is an organization which is quite heavily influenced by the radical and hard-line groups."

Virgoe adds that the Ahmadiyah decision may backfire by mobilizing opposition groups in the run up to general elections in 2009.

He says recent events could serve as a wake-up call to supporters of human rights and religious tolerance, causing them to take the influence of radical groups in Indonesia more seriously.