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Indonesia: Forced church closings spike

All is not well for Christians in the world's largest Muslim country

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.”