By Sara Webb
JAKARTA, June 25 (Reuters) - Indonesia's former President Abdurrahman Wahid on Wednesday slammed government restrictions on a controversial Islamic sect and urged the "silent majority" of moderate Muslims to speak out in defence of religious tolerance.
Under pressure from hardline groups, the government issued a ministerial decree this month that stopped short of banning the Ahmadiyya, while warning that followers could face five years in jail for tarnishing religion.
"Now the fundmantalists demand that the Ahmadiyya movement, one sect of Islam, must be disbanded. But I think it's only the first step. After that, they will make further demands," Wahid told Reuters in an interview in his office in the country's largest Muslim organisation.
"You ban Ahmadiyya, then you ban the Shi'ites, Christians, Buddhists," said Wahid, who is still a key figure in the Nahdlatul Ulama, a Muslim group with some 40 million members.
Indonesia's commitment to freedom of belief has been put to the test in recent weeks with the government's handling of the Ahmadiyya sect.
Indonesia is the world's most-populous Muslim country but its constitution protects freedom of religion, and it has sizeable Christian, Hindu and Buddhist communities.
The government has come under increasing pressure from hardline and some mainstream Muslim groups to outlaw Ahmadiyya, whose followers do not accept the Prophet Mohammad as Islam's final prophet and who say their founder is a prophet and messiah.
Members of Indonesia's main Muslim groups "are too passive in my view," Wahid said, adding "the silent majority, that's us."
Wahid, who was Indonesia's president from 1999 to 2001, said that hardline groups were not representative of the country's largely moderate population and that the government was wrong to cave in to their demands over Ahmadiyya and other issues.
"These fundamentalists number only a little, but they are well organised, disciplined. It's important to realise that the fundamentalists are on their last breath of life."
Mosques and buildings belonging to Ahmadiyya, which is estimated to have anywhere from 200,000 to two million followers in Indonesia, have been attacked in recent months.
On June 1, the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI), a militant group, also provoked a public outcry when it beat up women and elderly people at a peaceful rally held to celebrate freedom of religion and tolerance for Ahmadiyya.
"The government should be strong, it should ban FPI," said Wahid, who promotes moderate Islamic thought, democratic reform, and religious pluralism through the Wahid Institute, a Jakarta-based nonprofit organisation led by his daughter Yenni Wahid.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)