Indonesia: Muslim Radicals Threaten House Churches

Monday, June 25, 2007

Demonstration in West Java calls for closures; two congregations attacked.

JAKARTA, June 21 (Compass Direct News) -- Muslim extremists demonstrating on June 14 in West Java threatened to close down churches operating in private homes, and a pastor on Sunday (June 17) received an anonymous letter promising to destroy his home if it is "still functioning as a church."

The protest and threats followed two attacks on churches in West Java in early June.

Some 150 protestors from the Mosque Movement Front (FPM) and the Anti-Apostasy Alliance joined the mid-June march, The Jakarta Post reported on June 15. By law, Indonesian church groups must have a worship permit – but strict terms of a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) revised last year make it virtually impossible to obtain one.

A church now requires proof of at least 90 existing members, the approval of 60 neighbors from different faith backgrounds, and approval from local authorities before a church permit is granted. A separate building permit is also required.

For this reason, most churches worship without the requisite permit in private homes or rented facilities.

After marching from the al-Ikhlash Mosque to the Katapang district office in Bandung, FPM head Suryana Nur Fatwa warned officials that if they failed to close down illegal churches, FPM would take matters into its own hands: “Every violator must stop their activities or the FPM will be forced to close them down.”

Fatwa presented a list of 26 private homes being used as churches in Bandung regency. He claimed 17 of them had stopped operating “of their own free will,” but that nine others were still meeting for worship.

Katapang district chief Nina Setiyana said she did not wish to take sides but wanted all houses of worship in her area to be authorized, The Jakarta Post reported.

“It would surely be better if they all had permits and did not break the regulation ... so no one could make a problem out of it,” Setiyana added.

The Rev. Simon Timorason, head of the West Java Christian Communication Forum, said that according to an article in the SKB, local government officials were legally required to facilitate the acquisition of places of worship for minority religious groups.

Timorason, who often acts as a negotiator between Christian and Muslim leaders, has recorded at least 70 disputes over the use of private homes as worship facilities since January 2004.

Attacks in Talegong

Prior to the demonstration, Muslims mobs attacked two churches in early June.

On June 9, a mob attacked the Assembly of God (GSJA) church in Talegong with stones and wooden clubs, smashing doors, roofs, windows and kitchen furniture. They also took away a Bible and ownership deeds for the church land and threatened the pastor’s wife with a machete.

A government official arrived just in time to prevent further violence, and nobody was hurt in the attack.

On the following day, however, a larger crowd of 300 people gathered and demanded that church members move away from the area.

“Witnesses said the mob was looking for Pastor Tata Budiman, who was away at the time,” local Christian mission leader Gideon Eddy reported. “It’s a good thing they didn’t find him.”

Budiman began his ministry in Talegong in 2003 and soon had a congregation of 40 people, all from Muslim backgrounds.

“Locals were aware of this, but never protested, since the believers were still identified as Muslims on their ID cards,” Eddy said.

On June 7, however, two days before the attack, police contacted local administrators and asked them to help GSJA members change the religious status on their ID cards. Some local Muslims perceived this as an official acknowledgement of Christianity in their community; the news spread quickly, leading to the attack on June 9.

With tensions soaring, Budiman and his family, along with a dozen other church members, have taken shelter in a nearby city and will not return home for at least two months.

“I submit everything to the Lord,” Budiman told Compass. “I’m just thankful that none of my church members reconverted to Islam.”

Attack in Soreang

A week earlier, on June 3, 56 members of the Anti-Apostasy Alliance Movement broke into a GSJA house church in Soreang, West Java, disturbing a Sunday school class.

The mob demanded that the church be shut down and that all Christian activities cease in the area.

“I was away when they came, but my wife Lidia was home, along with several Sunday school teachers and children,” the Rev. Robby Elisa told Compass. “The mob entered my bedroom by force and threw my books around. My wife was hit twice on the head – first with a Bible, and then with a bare hand – when she tried to stop them.”

Lidia Elisa told Reuters news agency on June 4 that “the men forced a teenage student to spit on the Bible and deny Christ. When he refused, they kicked him in the gut.”

Mobs attacked four other churches in Soreang in 2005, forcing them to close. Elisa, however, refused to shut down his church or move it to another location.

“If we Christians did something wrong, please let us know – but without violence,” he told Compass. “We have equal rights in front of the law. We need the government to acknowledge our rights to worship as fellow citizens.”

Police are reviewing the case, and meantime the church has applied for a building permit. Several Christian organizations, including the Advocacy Body of Human Rights (Elham), are providing legal assistance.

“Elham countered the Muslims’ claims that we gave false charges regarding the physical attacks on my wife,” Elisa explained. “They also filed a report to the National Human Rights Commission for Children, since our Sunday school children were heavily traumatized by the incident.”

But threats continue. On Sunday (June 17), Elisa received an anonymous letter that stated in part, “If your house is still functioning as a church, we will destroy it.”

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