Indonesia: Islamists Threaten to Tear Down Church

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Extremists in North Sumatra put halt to construction as officials withhold worship permit.

JAKARTA (Compass Direct News) -- Muslim extremists and local government authorities last week threatened to tear down a church building under construction in North Sumatra even though church leaders met requirements of Indonesia’s draconian law on worship places, the church’s pastor said.

Emboldened by local authorities’ unwillingness to grant a church building permit to Protestant Bataks Christian Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP), some 100 Muslim extremists accompanied by government officials on April 29 tried to destroy the building under construction in Jati Makmur village, North Binjai, 22 kilometers (14 miles) from the provincial capital of Medan.

The Rev. Monang Silaban, HKBP pastor, said about 100 members of the Islamic extremist Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender Front, or FPI), some armed with “sharp weapons,” arrived at 4:30 p.m. accompanied by Binjai municipal officials, who brought a bulldozer. Church members quickly gathered to defend the building, with women anxiously crying, “Please God protect us.”

The groups nearly came to blows in the rain as some Islamic extremists made their way into the structure, which was about 40 percent completed. Brigadir Mobil (Brimob) security forces and Binjai reserve police arrived and were able to bring calm, with the mob eventually calling off the assault.

Binjai officials have been unwilling to grant HKBP a permit even though it has complied with recent government regulations requiring it to provide information on 90 adult members and the written consent of 60 neighbors. Rev. Silaban said the church had provided the required information on 90 church members and collected 69 signatures of area residents giving their consent for the church building.

A Joint Ministerial Decree issued in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires an official permit for any place of worship – whether Muslim, Christian or otherwise – operating throughout Indonesia. The requirements of the revised decree – 90 adult members and 60 neighbors’ written consent – leave many small Christian churches easy targets for Islamic radicals and hostile local governments, but the Jati Makmur’s HKBP is one of the few Indonesian churches actually able to comply with it.

Police met with church and Muslim extremist group leaders following the confrontation and reached an agreement that construction on the building would cease until the permit is approved – something that hasn’t happened in the two years since HKBP applied.

At the meeting, held at the mayor’s office in Binjai, G.T. Siregar, a member of the church construction committee, complained that officials have obstructed efforts to obtain permission to construct the church building.

“We’re tired of trying to obtain the permit, because it always fails,” he said. “The local government actually has to grant us the permit, because we have done as the revised decree has asked.”

A Binjai official who goes by the sole name of Wahyudi claimed in the meeting that the church building construction had to be stopped because it was not in compliance with rules of the revised decree, which a provincial Indonesian Church Association official present disputed.

Present at the meeting was the regional secretary of local government, Edi Syahfril, Indonesian Church Association in North Sumatra Pastor Ferdinandus, the HKBP construction committee and the provincial Indonesian Christian Youth Movement (GAMKI) representative Ir Ronald Naibaho.

“The location will be emptied,” Pastor Ferdinandus said. “Heavy equipment will be taken away, and safety will be completely a police responsibility. We’re asking for the congregation to stay calm and to not be easily provoked.”

Previously some 250 Muslims opposed to the church had demonstrated at Binjai government offices, demanding that the structure be torn down.

“The deadline will be Tuesday [April 29] – at 16:00 [4 p.m] we will tear down this church,” members of the mob shouted.

On April 28, Binjai officials, Muslim leaders and police had stopped the church’s construction. Church leaders voiced their opposition to the work stop and kept the church on alert.

At press time, police were providing a 24-hour guard at the church structure for the safety of congregation as well as the area residents.

Calling the revised decree a weapon for Islamic extremists to do away with churches was the Indonesia Christian Student Association Movement (Gerakan Mahasiswa Kristen Indonesia), Indonesian Christians for Intelectual Unity (Persatuan Intelektual Kristen Indonesia), and the Indonesian Christian Youth Movement (Gerakan Angkatan Muda Kristen, or GAMKI) of North Sumatra.

The groups called on Binjai to grant the permit letter for HKBP’s construction as soon as possible and to revise anew the revised decree.

“[The revised decree] does not help in creating inter-religious harmony,” said Naibaho, the head of GAMKI in North Sumatra.

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