Indonesian Christians protest church demolition

Around 100 Indonesian Christians begged the government Thursday to halt the demolition of their church, as hundreds of Muslim protesters branded them "infidels" and demanded the building be torn down.

While dispirited church members dressed in black gathered outside the building and sang hymns, police held back hundreds of Muslims who chanted "knock the church down now" -- in a sign of increasing intolerance in the country.

The church congregation flew the Indonesian flag at half mast and children clutched signs reading "please do not dismantle our church" as preparations began to demolish the building, at the centre of a planning row.

"Oh Jesus, please send us a miracle. This church is not a place of evil," a woman in tears yelled as a large, yellow excavator appeared at the scene. "We just pray here in our church, we don't commit any crime."

Police in Bekasi city on the outskirts of the capital Jakarta told AFP they planned to help knock down the partially-built Taman Sari Batak Christian Protestant Church on Thursday, at the city government's request.

They said the church did not have a legal building permit, while the congregation argued that it was unfairly rejected after they had spent 13 years worshipping in a temporary shelter on the land.

Reverend Advent Nababan, who leads the congregation, said the church had obtained 82 signatures of support from the community before building started, above the 60 required by law.

"We can't possibly perform our religious duties without a church building," Nababan told AFP. "We obtained signatures of support from more than enough people in the neighbourhood."

Only 500 metres (550 yards) away, some 200 Muslim protesters staged a demonstration, blocked by police from getting any closer.

"They're infidels and they've built their church without permission," a protester shouted over a loudspeaker, while others chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and "Knock the church down now" in response.

Ninety percent of Indonesia's 240 million people identify as Muslims, and the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

The Setara Institute of Peace and Democracy, however, says cases of intolerance in the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation are on the rise, with 543 incidents reported in 2011, up from 491 cases in 2009.

More than 300 incidents were recorded in the first half of 2012.

Christians are among the main targets, along with worshippers who follow the Ahmadiyah and Shiite Islamic minority sects.