Church Closures, Demolition Spark Protest in Indonesia

Pressured by Islamists, officials crack down on Christians in West Java.

Demolished Batak Protestant Christian Church (HKBP) building in Bekasi, outside Jakarta.

Demolished Batak Protestant Christian Church (HKBP) building in Bekasi, outside Jakarta.

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – Hundreds of Christians hit the streets of Indonesia’s capital this week to urge government action after local officials demolished a church building and threatened to close others at the behest of Islamist forces.

Christian protestors, joined by minority Ahmadiyya and Shia Muslims, held a shared prayer service and sang the country’s national anthem in downtown Jakarta to mark their protest on Monday (April 8). Many victims were part of the protest, which came weeks after local authorities spurred by an Islamic extremist group demolished the Batak Protestant Christian Church (HKBP) in the Taman Sari area of Bekasi, a Jakarta suburb in West Java Province.

HKBP members continue to hold services at the site where their church building was razed on March 21, a week before Good Friday. The Islamic People’s Forum in Taman Sari had protested against the church, alleging a building permit violation. Indonesian officials routinely delay or deny church building permits – besides the fact that requirements are beyond the ability of smaller churches to meet – thus providing Islamic extremists a pretext for protests and attacks.

“The demolition was illegal – there was no written order by the district head of Bekasi,” Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, told Morning Star News. He added that church leaders were expected to file a lawsuit against the local government.

The pulling down of the church building hit the headlines in national newspapers, which carried photos of church members in tears – singing hymns, crying and begging local officials not to demolish their facility. Hundreds of police and army officers guarded the area while Muslim militants, shouting Koranic verses, cheered the excavator.

“What is our sin, sir?” church member Megarenta Sihite shouted at district officers. “Is it a sin to pray? Show us where our mistake is. I thought this is a democratic country. Please, Mr. President, we were born here in this country with five religions. We never did anything bad to their houses of worship. Why are they doing this to us?”

The church had gathered 89 signatures of approval from local residents, required by law to acquire a permit, but an official refused to sign the document, claiming that most of the signatures were fake.

Rather than an alleged building permit violation, area Christians suspect the actual reason behind the demolition was related to the re-election weeks earlier of West Java’s Islamist governor, Ahmad Heryawan.

He had promised the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to rid the province of the minority Ahmadiyya sect and instill Islamic values in return for receiving election support, according to The Jakarta Globe, and Christians noted actions against them as well. A week after the results of the election were announced, the Banua Niha Keriso Protestan (BNKP) church in Bandung, the capital of West Java, received a threat from the local neighborhood chief, Haj Ayi, an Islamist, warning that if they did not take down all Christian icons and vacate the building, they would face a confrontation with a large group of local Muslims, the Globe reported.

It is feared that the BNKP church might meet the same fate as that of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor and the HKBP Filadelfia church in Bekasi – both West Java churches were sealed by local authorities in the last five years in direct violation of Supreme Court rulings.

The GKI Yasmin and HKBP Filadelfia congregations now hold joint services every Sunday on the street outside the State Palace in Jakarta, in order to draw the attention of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to their plight.

 

The Trigger

Refusal to grant building permits on various pretexts is one of the main triggers for church closures and anti-Christian violence, according to a Jakarta-based rights group, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace. A 2006 joint ministerial decree requires signatures from congregations and residents living nearby, as well as approval from the local administration, to build a house of worship.

On Jan. 27, about 50 men from the FPI scaled the gates of a 400-member Pentecostal church (locally known as GPdI) in Mekargalih village in Jatinangor sub-district of Sumedang town in West Java. The mob vandalized the place of worship and assaulted pastor Bernhard Maukar – at one point using his necktie to strangle him, according to the Globe. The men claimed that the 26-year-old church did not have a valid permit to operate.

Police arrested Maukar two days later for holding services without a valid permit. The pastor is serving a three-month sentence at the Sumedang prison, as he could not pay the fine of $2,600. On Feb. 12, the pastor’s wife, Corry, was warned that she, too, would be arrested if she held a worship service.

Protests against churches often turn violent, as Pastor Anna Nenoharan from the Evangelical Christian Church (Gekindo) in Bekasi’s Jatimulya area narrated at Monday’s protest.

“I was knifed in my neck and my tummy,” she was quoted as saying in relation to a 2005 incident. FPI members who claimed the church did not have a valid permit stabbed her, she said, and the church building was later demolished.

“The FPI attacked me, and the law didn’t do anything to protect me,” she reportedly said. “They are still free … We have protested in front of the State Palace, but nothing has been done … Our church can be pulled down, but our spirit will always remain high . . . We are ashamed of our government, but we are proud to be Indonesian.”

 

Government Denial

The Indonesian government has done little to protect rights of the minorities despite the international human rights community taking note of growing animosity in a country whose constitution is based on the doctrine of Pancasila – five principles upholding the nation’s belief in the one and only God and social justice, humanity, unity and democracy for all.

The Setara Institute cited 371 acts of intolerance and violence reported across Indonesia last year alone, revealing that Christians were the main target in the Sunni Muslim-majority country. While Indonesia’s population of 240 million is believed to be largely tolerant, a new trend has emerged of local Muslims – not just extremist groups – leading violent attacks, Setara noted.

The government, however, continues deny such trends. In February, Bahrul Hayat, secretary general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, told local media, “Indonesia is a good place to see religious harmony,” and added that incidents of violence were not a cause for alarm.

Days later, Human Rights Watch blasted the Indonesian government for failing to protect minorities. The government is “undermining its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, urging President Yudhoyono “to insist that national laws be enforced, announce that every violent attack will be prosecuted, and map out a comprehensive strategy to combat rising religious intolerance.”

HRW’s 107-page report, “In Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” released on Feb. 28, highlighted local officials’ role, saying they “too often have responded to acts of arson and other violence by blaming the victims.”

“Most perpetrators have received little or no punishment,” the report states. “In two cases [related to the two churches in Bogor and Bekasi], local officials refused to implement Supreme Court decisions granting minority groups the right to build houses of worship. While some national officials have spoken out in defense of religious minorities, others – including the minister of religion, Suryadharma Ali – have themselves made discriminatory statements.”

HRW also said violence and discrimination were “in part made possible by discriminatory laws and regulations, including a blasphemy law that officially recognizes only six religions, and house of worship decrees that give local majority populations significant leverage over religious minority communities.”

Indonesian government institutions – including the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Bakor Pakem) under the attorney general’s office, and the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council – have eroded religious freedom by issuing decrees and fatwas (religious rulings) against members of religious minorities and using their positions of authority to press to prosecute “blasphemers,” the report added.

Christians hope the call for the protection of Christians and other minorities will not fall on deaf ears yet another time, Bela said.

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