Indonesia: Forced church closings spike

BEKASI, Indonesia – Packed into the living room of a small house here, several hundred Christians, all dressed in their Sunday best, whispered to each other over the sermon.

“But as an Indonesian and as a follower of Christ, we will still worship,” said Pieterson Purba, a visiting pastor, in response to news that local authorities planned to seal off their makeshift church and force them to move. “And with nowhere else to go, we will continue to worship right here in this house.”

A week later, on Feb. 28, an angry mob of fundamentalist Muslims attacked their morning service for the second time, demanding they leave the neighborhood.

“Where should we go?” one member of the congregation asked.

For almost 20 years, this parish, part of the Batak Christian Protestant Church in the Pondok Timur Indah neighborhood of Bekasi, an industrial suburb of Jakarta, has been petitioning the government to build their own place to pray. But authorities have repeatedly denied them permits, citing national laws that govern the establishment of houses of worship.

It is a scene that has played out with increasing frequency throughout Indonesia. The Indonesian Community of Churches reported a spike in forced church closings in the last year. At least 10 churches, the group said, were forced to suspend services due to mob threats and government intervention. In all those cases, a lack of permits was cited as the reason for the attacks.

Indonesian law requires 60 percent of a community’s residents to support the building of any religious institution before permits can be issued, an often impossible task for Christians, who make up less than nine percent of the country’s total population, and other minority religious groups.

Indonesia, although not an Islamic state, is home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. The country is a democracy and its constitution nominally protects freedom of religion, as does the state ideology, known as Pancasila. But several antiquated laws, like those governing the establishment of religious buildings and another that makes blasphemy a criminal offense, appear to contradict the country’s constitution.

“These laws are clearly discriminatory toward minority religious groups,” said Uli Parulian Sihombing, an Indonesian human rights lawyer.

The problem is not limited to Christians. It has also led to the closure of several mosques in recent years. On the restive and remote island of Papua, which is predominantly Christian, several half-built mosques have also been forced to close for being unlicensed.

“The law should be revoked if for no other reason than it is in violation of the country’s constitution,” Sihombing said.

The law also encourages violence, rights groups say.

On Feb. 8, a Sunday, the Pondok Timur Indah congregation clashed with a violent mob. A crowd of about 200 gathered outside the house during morning services, chanting slogans and demanding its closure. Police arrived at the scene, dispersed the crowd, and temporarily sealed the home.

“We had to finish our service in the street,” said Luspita Simanjuntak, the church’s pastor for the past three years.

A week later, at another church in Bekasi, members of the Islamic Defender’s Front, a fundamentalist group most famous for their violent attacks on nightclubs and restaurants that serve alcohol, gathered to force its closure.

In December, a Muslim mob attacked yet another Bekasi church, uprooting trees, smashing lamps and windows. And in late January, two churches and a pastor’s home in North Sumatra were set aflame for not having permits.

For some local officials, however, the law makes sense.

Nyaman, the government official in charge of the Pondok Timur Indah neighborhood in Bekasi, said not he, nor anyone in the neighborhood, were anti-Christian.

“They have the right to practice their religion,” he said. “The problem is the place. Their congregation is growing and their services cause traffic and disrupt the neighborhood.”

He said he had politely asked the parish to search for a new area to hold services where there is a greater number of Christians or that is more commercial.

“We have time and again extended their deadline, but they have yet to find a new place,” he said.

Unable to garner the necessary support from the community, which is mostly Muslim, the Pondok Indah Timur parish has led a semi-nomadic life, moving from house to house to house to hold their services.

“The government has forced us to move over and over again,” said Simanjuntak, who openly cried during a protest demanding protection for churches in Jakarta on Feb. 9, a day after the mob closed hers. “We are just holding services in our homes until we get permission to build a church. But they never give us permission. They never even respond to our letters.”