3 elementary school students held back 3 years for being Jehovah’s Witnesses: KPAI

File photo of elementary school students in Indonesia. Photo: Finance Ministry
File photo of elementary school students in Indonesia. Photo: Finance Ministry

The Commission for the Protection of Indonesian Children (KPAI) has made public the plight of three elementary school students in Tarakan, North Kalimantan who are reportedly losing out on their precious formative years because they’re adherents of a non-mainstream faith in Indonesia.

According to KPAI, the children are siblings identified by the initials M, who is 14 but still in 5th grade; Y, who is 13 and in 4th grade; and YT, who is 11 and in 2nd grade. At their school, they were made to repeat their respective grades for three successive years since the 2018/19 academic year because they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“The three children in a Zoom meeting with KPAI and the Education Ministry said that they don’t want to continue with school if they’re held back a year for the fourth time,” KPAI Commissioner Retno Listyarti wrote in an official statement yesterday.

The siblings, according to Retno, have largely lost the spirit to learn at school and have had to bear the shame of being the oldest students in their respective classes. They are by no means academically challenged, but were presented obstacles and discriminated against by their school for their faith.

Citing one of the reasons the school has used to justify holding back the children, Retno said that in 2019, the siblings all failed religious studies — which is required in the curriculum — even though they were denied access to classes. The children’s parents even pleaded with the school to let the children partake in mainstream Christianity studies, but the school refused on the grounds that their denomination of the faith is incompatible with their beliefs.

That same year, the Administrative Court in Samarinda overruled the school’s decision mandating the children to repeat their grades, ensuring their right to an education and freedom for religious belief. However, Retno said the school always found other ways to flunk the children, such as giving them low grades in other subjects.

Neither the school nor the local education board have issued statements responding to KPAI’s report.

Indonesia officially only recognizes six religions, with Christianity among them. However, the Jehovah’s Witness denomination was once banned in 1976 because of a series of legal violations including the congregations’ refusal to salute the Indonesian flag.

The ban was lifted in 2001, and Indonesia is now home to some 28 thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is a tiny minority in a country with a population of around 270 million. While followers of the faith have largely stayed away from the spotlight, in 2019, two students in Batam, Riau Islands were expelled from their school for their refusal to salute the flag, as they believed that they must reserve their reverence for nothing except their God.


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