No fury like Indonesia’s blasphemy law

Human rights groups want law repealed as they say it is too open to interpretation and subject to abuse

Protesters hold up a lighted candles to show solidarity in Bandung, West Java province in this May 13, 2017 file photo as they called for the release of Jakarta’s now ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok”, who was jailed for allegedly insulting the Quran. (Photo by Timur Matahari/AFP)

Human rights groups have appealed to Indonesian authorities to revise or abolish the country’s blasphemy laws, stepping up calls they have made repeatedly over the past decade.

Amnesty International Indonesia made the latest such demand in April after the Supreme Court rejected on March 26 a case review petition by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former Christian governor of Jakarta.

Also known as Ahok, the jailed ex-governor was seeking to get his blasphemy conviction overturned and cut short his two-year prison sentence. He was convicted for commenting on a Quranic verse that he claimed his political rivals had used to discredit him during his 2017 re-election campaign.

Indonesia enacted its first blasphemy law in 1965 but defamation of religion is also regulated in Article 156a of the Criminal Code.

The main concern of human rights and other groups is that the latter is applied on a seemingly arbitrary basis. They decry this a threat to democracy that has resulted in numerous people being incarcerated unjustly. Top of Form

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The article has often been used to serve political interests while bowing to pressure from majority groups.

In many cases blasphemy accusations are accompanied by mass protests and, sadly, investigations and court rulings are steered by the strongest and loudest supporters.

In October 2009 an examination of the blasphemy law was submitted to the Constitutional Court. Over 30 people testified, including moderate Muslim cleric Hasyim Muzadi of Nahdlatul Ulama, Jesuit Father Franz Magnis Suseno and writer Arswendo Atmowiloto.

Atmowiloto conducted a poll of people’s favorite celebrities that was published in The Monitor, a newspaper he managed over a quarter of a century ago.

According to the results of the poll, he ranked No.10 on the list one slot above the Prophet Muhammad. This sparked a public outcry and the writer found himself jailed for five years.

However, the court turned down his request to review the law. In handing down its ruling it provided no justification for the decision, merely saying that all blasphemy charges are handled according to legal principles.

Amnesty International claims that more than 100 people have been prosecuted and convicted for religious defamation over the last 12 years, including 12 in 2017 alone.

Meanwhile, police are now investigating accusations of blasphemy against Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, the third daughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, and against Amien Rais, the former chairman of the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly and the founder of the Islamic-based National Mandate Party.

Sukmawati was accused of insulting Islam through a poem, while Rais was held to account for a political statement he made that dichotomized “Satanic parties and divine parties.”

Despite the ongoing probe, some observers have expressed concern they will escape punishment as they enjoy the backing of powerful lobby groups

Sukmawati has since met with many Muslim clerics to apologize while Rais appears unconcerned because he is supported by a number of influential Islamic organizations.

A modern-day anachronism

The request to revoke the law was based on the argument that it was created during an emergency situation over 50 years ago and is no longer relevant given that Indonesia is a modern democracy.

The law, particularly Article 156a, has been criticized as a form of state encroachment on religious life, which belong to the private sphere.

It also stands accused of protecting the six major religions of Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism while neglecting minority religions and traditional beliefs, which are therefore more vulnerable and susceptible to harassment.

Rights activists are concerned by what they claim is a willful neglect of the due process of law when accusations of blasphemy are filed and processed.

Instead, they say, the accused are immediately held as being guilty.

The nation’s blasphemy law is too elastic, making it subject to abuse. In most cases, religious sentiment or bias becomes the dominant factor in determining whether the suspects were really at fault, as opposed to the objective consideration of their actions.

As such, the law effectively shuts out rational argument and tramples on what most would consider sound legal principles. In other words, the application of Article 156a has derailed the law from its legal context.

In many cases, investigations and court decisions focus exclusively on defamation and ignore whether the accused intended to influence people by encouraging them to abandon their religion.

However, any blasphemy charge should always include due consideration of this.

Due to the unclear definition of the law, judges are given too free rein to make subjective decisions that may well be influenced by their own religious beliefs. In other rulings, they have been seen as bowing to public pressure, often manifested in the form of mass protests.

Rights activists say Indonesia’s religious defamation law goes against the spirit if not the letter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the government ratified in 2005 with a law to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Powerful silencing tool

The inclusion in the Criminal Code of a law designed to crack down on defamation of religion came in response to political events in January 1965 that threatened to spiral out of control.

Its birth is inseparable from a decree aimed at curbing the desecration of holy places and religious slights or insults issued by former president Sukarno on Jan. 20 of that year. It was later extracted into article 156a.

The decree was promulgated only a few weeks after the Indonesian Communist Party massacred hundreds of Muslim clerics and students in Madiun, East Java while they were engaged in dawn prayers. The Quran and other symbols of Islam were also trampled on.

It was also published to accommodate requests from Islamic organizations that were loath to give traditional religious beliefs room to grow. Such beliefs were seen as tarnishing established religions.

According to a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2013 titled, “In the Name of Religion,” conservative Muslim communities requested back in the early 1960s that Sukarno’s government take action to stamp out mysticism, the teachings of which were seen as a threat to and stain on Islam.

Many followers of traditional beliefs at the time were perceived to be violating the law, undermining national unity, and desecrating religion. Pressing Sukarno to issue his presidential decree — the basis of the current blasphemy law — was seen a long-term solution.

During Suharto’s subsequent New Order, a term he used to distinguish his regime from that of Sukarno’s after he rose to power in 1966, it became a powerful political tool, one Suharto used to maintain public order and silence troublemakers.

Tightening the grip

Islamic organizations remain firm in their belief that calls or petitions to abolish the law must be firmly opposed.

Last year they even challenged the United Nations, demanding it not intervene after it appealed to the government to abolish the law.

They argued that if the law was removed it would open the door for people to insult other people’s religions at will without fear of punishment or reprisal, thus threatening the fabric of society as conflicts escalated.

They said the law helps regulate social harmony making it crucial in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation.

Islamists say it guarantees people’s freedom to choose their own religions and practice it freely without fear of being harmed by others.

And their calls rarely fall on deaf ears, it seems, with the government and parliament now gearing up to expand rather than reduce the scope of this contentious law.

Recent media reports claim legislators have widened the compass of articles 156 and 156a in their latest draft of the Criminal Code, which is now being deliberated by the nation’s parliament. If so, more “innocent” people could face time behind bars if the amendments are approved.

Judging by the ease with which defamation of religion cases can bypass the legal framework, fears are mounting that the revised law will serve as a “magic wand” that majority groups can wield at will to heap pressure on minority groups or their political rivals.

Maybe now would be an appropriate time to break the spell.

Published in UCA News on May 4, 2018 Siktus Harson is head of operations at’s Jakarta bureau.


Indonesia’s poorest see little benefit from economic growth

Rapidly rising population, low wages and high unemployment are hampering efforts to reduce inequality

Slum dwellers in the Tanah Tinggi area of Indonesian capital Jakarta, seen in this 2015 file picture, often work as scavengers. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/

Since his wife’s death last year from kidney failure, Udin’s life has been rough and melancholy. He prefers sleeping in public places to going home.

Udin says he has no reason to stay at a temporary shelter in East Jakarta where other scavengers, including one of his own children, live.

The 60-year-old is a member of the Betawi ethnic group native to the Jakarta region. The term derives from the old name for the city, Batavia, during Dutch colonial rule.

The Betawi are increasingly marginalized as people from throughout the sprawling archipelago drift to the capital.

Several plots of land owned by Udin’s father were sold to newcomers when he was a child.

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Uneducated Udin now does not have enough money to rent a house, let alone buy one. His only possession is a wooden cart for collecting recyclable metal, plastic and glass.

“Even to meet daily needs, I have to struggle and rely on other people,” he said.

In another case, Abdul Rahman lacked farmland and employment in Central Java, so three years ago he left his wife and five children to relocate to Jakarta.

“I have to support my family,” said Rahman, 50, whose first child studies at a university.

Finding work proved difficult but early last year he got a job selling porridge in a business district. Now he has a very small but at least steady income.

“Most of it I send to my wife,” said Rahman, who only goes home following the Ramadan month of Muslim fasting.

Udin and Rahman are among millions of Indonesians whose lives have not been uplifted by the nation’s economic development.

According to official Indonesian statistics more than 26 million, or 10.2 percent of the population, live in poverty. However, international agency Oxfam believes the real figure is much higher.

The number of Indonesians falling below the US$3.10 per day World Bank “moderate” poverty line is about 93 million or 36 percent of the population.

Indonesia’s economic growth last year of 5.1 percent is predicted to rise to 5.3 percent this year.

However, Enny Sri Hartati, executive director of the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance, said this paled in comparison to rapid population growth. Indonesia already has more than 260 million inhabitants.

If significant corrective action is not taken, inequality will deepen, Hartati told

The high birth rate has undermined efforts to reduce unemployment of about 5.5 percent or 7 million of the 128 million workforce.

Under shadow of wealth inequality

Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement Party known as Gerindra, complained that 80 percent of the country’s resources are controlled by a handful of people.

Inequality is the sixth highest in the world and has been growing fastest among Southeast Asian nations.

Oxfam states that low wages as well as unequal access to education and infrastructure, such as electricity and decent roads, threaten social cohesion. 

There were 10 Indonesians on the 2018 Forbes business magazine list of the world’s 2,208 richest people. Those Indonesians had combined wealth of US$596 billion.

Cigarette tycoon Robert Budi Hartono and his banker brother Michael Bambang Hartono were ranked 69th and 75th respectively.

Oxfam states that the wealth of the four richest men in Indonesia exceeds that of 100 million Indonesians combined.

Syarkawai Rauf, chairman of the Indonesian Business Competition Supervisory Commission, contrary to other assessments, asserts that inequality is gradually declining.

However, he said government policies should be more oriented towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

Rauf believes there is too much focus on further developing the most populous island, Java.

Building from periphery

According to Hartati, import-dependent Indonesia has lost much of its sovereignty.

Debt as of February 2018, mostly from public sector borrowing, stood at US$352.2 billion or 34 percent of gross domestic product.

About 50 percent of strategic sectors of the economy, including mining and water resources, are controlled by foreign investors, she said.

The government needed to focus on industries that could boost people’s productivity and creativity.

Hamong Santono, a senior officer at the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development, called for greater government cooperation with civil society groups to tackle inequities.

He noted that the Millennium Development Goals set by world leaders in 2015 included eradicating all forms of poverty and hunger

Specific aims related to access to clean water, sanitation, education and gender equality as well as inclusive economic growth and action to combat climate change.

Santono said it was important that these key issues were reflected in policy choices for Indonesians voting in regional elections in June and a presidential election next year.

Local government, regional and national planning measures should be harmonized, he added.

President Joko Widodo has vowed to fight inequality.

The central government has increased education funding for poor regions, including the Christian-majority provinces of East Nusa Tenggara and Papua.

The government has also provided land certificates to millions of farmers and built dams to boost their productivity.  

Published in UCA News on April 24, 2018


Stage is set for another clash of the Indonesian Titans

Should Indonesians be concerned about a military figure coming to power?

Prabowo Subianto, chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), joins a protest to show his solidarity with Rohingya Muslims in Jakarta on Sept. 16, 2017. (Photo by Katharina Reny Lestari/

After months of rumors over who Gerindra (the Great Indonesia Movement Party) would choose to run on its ticket for next year’s presidential election, party chairman Prabowo Subianto has been named.

This sets up a potential rematch between Subianto of the leading opposition party and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the former Jakarta governor who won their last electoral contest in 2014.

Subianto served as a former commander of military operations in Timor-Leste and reportedly oversaw the deaths of hundreds of Timorese. His father-in-law was Suharto, Indonesia’s second president who held the post for 30 years until 1998.

On April 11, Gerindra party members unanimously voiced their support for Subianto, who was also a former commander of the nation’s military special forces known as Kopassus, during the party’s national convention.

Party members appeared unperturbed by his loss to Widodo nearly four years ago. They seemed equally unfazed by recent opinion polls, which indicate that support for the incumbent president to stay in power for another five years is rising, or the fact that he has secured the support of much of his ruling coalition.

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Since Subianto’s candidacy was formalized at a closed-doors hearing, without media coverage, the question is: Will there be another head-to-head rematch between Subianto and Widodo (and if so, how intense it will be)?

Meanwhile, expectations are running high that Widodo can continue to steer the country forward until 2024 — based on his achievements — giving Subianto a mountain to climb.

A survey by Poltracking Indonesia in February revealed the five favorites for the May 2019 race, with Widodo No. 1 and Subianto lagging at No. 2.

According to the poll, 55.9 percent of people prefer Widodo compared to just 29.9 percent who favor Subianto.

The three other names are Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, retired general Gatot Nurmantyo, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Susilo is the reigning chairman of the Democratic Party.

A similar poll conducted by Indo Barometer has also placed Widodo on top.

As of now, five parties representing total votes of 52.21 percent have formalized their support for Widodo.

This is higher than the presidential threshold of 20 percent of seats in the House of Representatives or 25 percent of the votes in the previous election.

At the last election, Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), garnered 18.95 percent of votes, followed by Golkar (14.75 percent), Nasional Democratic (6.72 percent), the United Development Party (6.53 percent) and the People’s Conscience Party (5.26 percent).

Newly established parties like the Indonesian Unity Party and the Indonesian Solidarity Party have also publicly declared they would stand behind Widodo.

On the other hand, Subianto’s obvious supporter is his own party, Gerindra. Its opposition partners, the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), have not taken an official stance yet but many expect they will end up throwing their support behind him.

In 2014, Gerindra earned 11.81 percent of the vote while PKS and PAN won 6.79 percent and 7.59 percent, respectively. Based on those numbers, a coalition of the three would have made a combined 26.19 percent.

Another two big parties with significant bargaining power who could prove formidable allies for either candidate are the National Awakening Party (PKB) and Democrats. They scored 9.04 percent and 10.19 percent of the vote in the last election, respectively.

There is also a possibility that the Democratic Party led by Yudhoyono will shrug off any talk of joining a coalition, as it has done in previous years.

The PKB is even considering an alliance between Gatot Nurmantyo, who served as commander of the National Armed Forces from 2015-2017, and its chairman Muhaimin Iskandar.

Meanwhile, the Golkar Party, which was part of the opposition last time round, has now closed ranks with the government, making it harder for Subianto to form a substantive coalition.

If he cannot win over more parties to his cause, the presidential race will be even tougher.

In an effort to boost his political standing Subianto has leaned on controversial rhetoric to draw people’s attention.

Recently, he attacked the government for allowing the country’s natural resources to be controlled by foreign companies while ramping up its foreign debt.

He said this would make Indonesia a failed state by 2030 due to mismanagement.

He also condemned the status quo that sees a small elite control most of Indonesia’s resources.

Most are Chinese-Indonesians, which led him to accuse Widodo of bowing to Chinese influence if not communism itself.

This is a sensitive issue as the president has on several occasions been accused of supporting communism, which is avowedly atheist and antagonistic to all religions.

Subianto said he also regrets not carrying out a coup when he had the chance in 1998, months if not weeks before the fall of Soeharto.

He also has gone on record saying he wished he had not endorsed Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, commonly known as Ahok, as vice governor when Widodo was running for the position of Jakarta governor in 2012.

Two years later, Widodo became president while Purnama became governor. Subianto’s hatred for Purnama was demonstrated during last year’s gubernatorial election, where Subianto teamed up with Islamist groups, leading to the victory of Anies Baswedan.

According to observers, Subianto’s recent rhetoric certainly aims to test the waters and show people that his party and its candidates running for this year’s June election are nationalists despite claims they support Islamists.

He wants to impress on the public that he is critical of injustice in society, and as such is presenting himself as an agent of change.

Adequate ammunition

Subianto’s military background has turned him into a combatant who seizes every opportunity to win. His decision to run for the presidency was based mainly on his political intuition and self-proclaimed role as a reformist.

Financially, he has all the resources at his disposal that he needs.

Based on a report to the Indonesian Election Commission in 2014, he was worth over $148 million at that time, based on the income and value of his various businesses and properties.

On paper, Subianto may have already fallen way behind Widodo. But one cannot deny the fact that he has loyal supporters who do not like the incumbent, particularly Islamists, who view him as an enemy.

There are no statistics showing exactly how broad Subianto’s support base is, but one thing is for sure: They are ready to stand behind him if he pays serious attention to perceived threats to Islam.

So will the next presidential race be a repeat of 2014?

While it is still too early to give a fair answer, let’s not forget that the parties within his coalition capitalized on sectarian sentiment to help independent Anies Baswedan win the Jakarta governor election last year.

There are fears they will apply a similar strategy in some strategic areas in the June elections, when 160 million people are expected to cast their ballots for new governors, mayors and district heads.

Meanwhile, if there are no leading candidates beside Widodo and Subianto, the next presidential election will be an intense affair as the contender will do everything in his power to avoid losing for a second time.

However, critics say he would practically have to move a mountain to unseat Widodo, especially since many of his supporters have jumped ship of late in response to improvements Widodo has made in education, health care, support for Muslim clerics, and other areas.

Published in UCA News on April 18, 2018. Siktus Harson is head of operations at’s Jakarta bureau.


Children of Jihad: Terrorism shifting gears in Indonesia

Extremist ideology is spreading among families as a new wave of female and child jihadists emerges

An anti-terror policeman gestures amid tight security at a hospital morgue where the bodies of the individuals involved in the Surabaya suicide bombings were being kept, in Surabaya, East Java province, on May 18. (Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP)

The ability to carry out a series of attacks in a shorter period of time — with better explosives and a higher number of casualties — indicates that terrorist groups in Indonesia are becoming ruthlessly efficient and potentially more dangerous.

They have changed their strategy of attack and, what is more frightening still, have shown how the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is flourishing and wielding its influence to make Indonesia its hotbed.

In fact, Islamic State has become increasingly vocal in claiming responsibility for a wave of recent attacks, beginning with deadly riots at a police detention facility in Depok, West Java on May 9.

The group also claimed a number of successful attacks on churches and a police station in Surabaya, the capital of East Java province, and in Sumatra’s Riau.

Those attacks led to the deaths of 12 civilians and seven police officers.Top of FormBottom of Form

In their wake, police have arrested at least 74 terrorist suspects in various locations in Java and Sumatra.

They come from different groups. Some are related to previous extremist groups while others are new players. What they have in common is the proven ability to develop new ways of carrying out their mission.

The recent attacks in East Java by members of two families are evidence enough that the terrorists have changed their strategy, which was previously male dominated but now includes women (mothers) and children.

Of the 13 attackers killed, five were children aged 9 to 17.

Analysts say the involvement of children in these and possibly future attacks indicates how the masterminds have shifted their recruitment tactics from peer indoctrination to “brainwashing” at the nuclear family level.

In several schools where government control is sadly lacking, children are taught to practice some of the basics of radicalism such as developing a sense of hatred for government figures and law enforcers while disavowing the prevailing ideology of the state.

According to experts, the inclusion of female jihadists in suicide bombings — including those, in some incidents, who planned to stab police officers — also highlights this broad shift.

The involvement of women is not entirely new, however. IS operations in Syria and the Boko Haram group in Nigeria have used female combatants to achieve their goals.

Several IS propaganda videos depict women joining various forms of training such as fighting, shooting, archery and showcasing other skills required in the field.

Observers maintain that one of the chief advantages of using female jihadists to carry out attacks is that they can garner more media attention when they are caught or killed. Also, they say it is easier for female combatants to pass security checks in targeted locations.

Such examples confirm that terrorism is no longer only the domain of male jihadists, which is something the Indonesian government and law enforcement agencies should be concerned about if they hope to anticipate future attacks by women.

Back to the bad old days?

The recent attacks targeting churches in East Java are reminiscent of what transpired over a decade ago when terrorist bombings began to be keenly felt in the country.

Again, the main targets were places of religious significance or symbols of Western influence.

The emergence of terrorism in Indonesia in the early 2000s is simultaneous with the sectarian conflicts in Ambon and Poso in Central Sulawesi. Terrorists tried to get support from Muslims at that time by attacking a number of churches throughout the country.

In the succeeding years the attacks fanned out, with some allegedly being staged in retaliation for the persecution of Muslims.

In one of the highest-profile cases, nightclubs and other symbols of Western culture on the tourist island of Bali came under attack, as did the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta, followed by the

JW Marriott hotel and the Australian Embassy in 2005.

Experts claim that at least some of these bombings were meted out in response to what was perceived as the unfair treatment of Abu Sayyaf fighters in Mindanao.

The terrorists only began strategically targeting police from 2010.

But while pundits contend that security personnel remain the main target of attackers, this new (old) pattern of striking places of worships and anything associated with Western culture suggests they are now adopting a two-pronged approach.

Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian who worked his way up into the echelons of power within IS leadership, instructed his followers earlier to divide up into small cells to avoid detection by police and intelligence officials.

According to Noor Huda Islamail, a terrorism expert, these small cells continue to multiply and produce new jihadists.

What is surprising, however, is that many of them have no links with previous or bigger terrorists groups or networks.

He said anyone can launch an attack without being trained in an IS camp, unlike in earlier times when recruits had to ally themselves with groups such as Jamaah Islamiyah before they were authorized to carry out attacks.

Now the process of joining a terrorist cell appears to have become considerably easier. All it takes is a bit of radical ideology, which can be delivered anywhere, even through social media, to convince them to strike.

In the hands of local leaders

Cahyo Pamungkas, a researcher at the Indonesian Science Institute, said extremist ideology is growing among families because it is being transferred from people who are either directly or indirectly linked with terrorists.

But he said Indonesian society is not tolerant enough of other religions and ideologies, which is making more families succumb to radicalism and extremism.

He suggested that ridding society of this religious intolerance would be a stronger foundation for a more harmonious society, rather than one that has become a fertile ground for breeding terrorists.

President Joko Widodo has on many occasions emphasized the importance of adopting both a soft and hard approach in eradicating terrorism.

The latter approach, which hinges on stricter law enforcement, has shown itself to be inadequate in conquering the spread of both terrorism and radicalism. To be more effective it must be balanced with a soft approach, such as involving former terrorists in the process of de-radicalization.

Many former terrorists who have served time for their crimes have subsequently gone on to help the government battle intolerance and radicalism, under police supervision.

In some cases, regular millennials have been drafted in to serve as ambassadors of peace by the nation’s counter terrorism agency (BNPT).

As the recent attacks indicate an “awakening” of splinter groups like Jamaah Ansharud Daulah and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, which have both pledged allegiance to IS, the government needs to boost its efforts to curtail the growth of such groups.

Society and religious organizations must be encouraged to openly condemn and speak out against any Islamic group that promotes extremism or hatred, and prohibit them from associating with certain religious groups.

Some critics contend that the Justice Prosperous Party (PKS) is home to many radical groups, and its officials rarely condemn the actions of extremist organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)

However, families must be shielded from the influence of extremists, either through social media or personal indoctrination. The Information Ministry has already blocked some radical content online but more needs to be done.

The National Anti-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) recently signed an agreement with the Ministry of Domestic Affairs to create a support system for families, convicted terrorists and former terrorists.

As of now more than 600 former terrorists have been freed and returned to their respective districts, mostly in Java. At least three are known to have re-joined terrorists groups, according to police. They were arrested last year.

Some continue to carry out attacks despite having undergone de-radicalization programs.

One of the roles of local governments, even at the lowest level, is to monitor the activities of ex-cons who are known to have either carried out attacks before or affiliated with terrorists so they do not return their former ways or ideology.

Their movements need to be restricted so that other families do not stray down the wrong path.

Commentary by Siktus Harson was published in UCA News on 31 March, 2018