A mosque belonging to the Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in Indonesia has been allowed to stay open following weeks of threats of closure by some Islamic groups and authorities. Followers of Ahmadiyah, considered a deviant sect in Indonesia, continue to face pressure from some mainstream Muslim groups.

It is midday in Jakarta and mosques all over the city are calling millions of Muslims to prayer.

The Al Hidayah mosque in northern Jakarta looks much like any other in Indonesia. Its dome and minaret are unmistakably Islamic and people who come to pray wash their hands and feet, kneel on prayer mats and bow their heads to the ground, as Muslims do all over the world.


What makes this mosque different, however, is that it is a house of worship for the Ahmadiyah sect. In 2008, the Indonesian government banned the group from propagating their faith, because its followers believe that founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of India was Islam's last prophet. This differs from mainstream Islam, which considers Muhammad the last prophet.

The head of the Al Hidayah mosque, Zafrullah Pontoh, says he and his congregation have practiced their religion as usual since the ministerial decree.

He says that Ahmadis are Muslims. Their principles are in harmony with Islam. Their calls to prayer are the same. Their rituals are the same. There is no big difference.

Followers under attack

But in many areas in Indonesia, Ahmadis find themselves under attack. In Manis Lor in West Java, about 160 kilometers from Jakarta, two-thirds of the district's 4,500 residents are Ahmadiyah Muslims.

Police officers guarded Manis Lor this week after attacks and threats on an Ahmadiyah mosque there ahead of Islam's holiest observances, the fasting month of Ramadan.

Attempt to close the mosque

Late last month, violence broke out there when police and hundreds of supporters from strict Islamist groups attempted to close down the mosque before Ramadan began on Wednesday.

The district head had ordered the mosque closed after a recommendation in June from the National Ulema Council that all eight Ahmadiyah mosques in Manis Lor be shut.

But district officials backed off on the effort to close the mosque this week.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos is from the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, an Indonesian research group that tracks human rights. He says the mosque was not closed because local authorities lacked support from the central government. Although the district has some autonomy, the national government can overrule local decrees.

He says Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono invited the district head to Jakarta to discuss the situation, and it has calmed down since then.

He says that religious affairs are dealt with by the central government, and that closing the mosque would not have been legal. He says the 2008 ministerial decree was against Ahmadis propagating their religion, not against them practicing it.

The situation in Manis Lor echoes a string of attacks on Christian churches in recent months, carried out mostly by a group known as the Islamic Defenders Front. Their attacks are in part a response to allegations that Christians have been proselytizing in Muslim neighborhoods.

Government standing on the issue

The attacks have raised concerns that Islamic hard-liners are gaining a firmer grip on the government and that freedom of religion is under threat.

Andreas Harsono is from Human Rights Watch. He says the government should revoke the 2008 decree and that attempts to close the Manis Lor mosque are illegal.

"Restricting Ahmadiyah ? is against international human rights law," Harsono said. "In this case, the Indonesian government does not obey the international treaty it has signed."

While Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population ? more than 200 million people ? the government is secular. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but only for six major faiths.

The Religious Affairs Ministry last month defended the decree against Ahmadiyah, describing its teachings as "heretic".

The ministry's director for Islamic guidance, Nasarudin Umar, says Indonesians still have religious freedom.

He says that everyone in Indonesia has the right to follow different religions, as long as they do not agitate people of other religions. If one religion violates the religion of the majority and uses the same name, he says, then that is a problem. If Ahmadiyah says it is Islamic, it must follow Islamic principles.

The pressure on the Ahmadis is expected to ease during Ramadan, but there are concerns it could resume after the month of fasting and prayer ends.