"Letter of Decision" Leads to Church Closures in Jakarta

Monday, January 12, 2004

Islamic fundamentalists incite community protests against churches.
by Samuel Rionaldo

JAKARTA, January 12 (Compass) -- Muslim groups are taking advantage of a document issued by the Indonesian government to close several existing churches and prevent the building of new churches in Jakarta. Letter of Decision No. 137, issued in 2002, allows for churches in the Jakarta area to be closed down -- even if they have the required government permit -- should people in the surrounding community object to their existence or location.

In late 2003, Muslim fundamentalists urged several communities to protest against churches in Jakarta, resulting in four church closures. Other communities were encouraged to protest against the building of new churches.

Bethel Church in Pahlawan Revolusi, the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI) Protestant church in Puri Kembangan, the GKI branch church in Ciputat and a Batak ethnic church in Pondok Bambu are among the churches closed through these tactics.

Congregations which were refused permission to build or worship in existing churches now meet in hotel conference rooms, community halls and restaurants. The situation is far from ideal as venues may change several times in the space of a year.

A Muslim mob forced the Batak church in Pondok Bambu to close on November 27, as the church had no official permit. Bethel church in Pahlawan Revolusi was closed on November 30 after the Forum Betawi Rempug (PBR) sent two warning letters based on the policies outlined in the Letter of Decision. Dissenters also forced the closure of the church at Puri Kembangan on December 5 and the Ciputat church on December 8.

According to the Letter of Decision, all congregations meeting in a permanent church building in Jakarta must have a permit from the local government. Permits are granted only if the surrounding community gives its consent.

However, in practice permits are rarely granted, even when the church has gathered signatures of consent from the local community.

Rev. Frans Simbolon, leader of Bethel church in Pahlawan Revolusi, told Compass that local religious scholars had pressured him to sign an agreement for church closure, even though the church had been operating without problems for seven years. “They pushed me to sign that letter,” said Simbolon.

On November 15, a week before the church was forced to close its doors, Muslim militants held a demonstration in front of the church. Some of them arrived at the demonstration with petrol cans, ready to burn down the church if their demands were ignored.

The Rev. Adhi Didaktira, leader of the GKI church in Puri Kembangan, said the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender Front) had encouraged neighbors to sign a letter asking that the church cease worship. He admitted that the church had no permit; however, the congregation had been meeting for some time without complaint from the neighboring community.

Meanwhile in Ciputat, church leader Santoso explained that the local community had been sympathetic until religious scholars incited a demonstration against the church. A mob of around 300 people arrived, shouting loudly and insisting that the church be closed down. Once again the Letter of Decision was used as the legal basis for closing the church.

Santoso gave in to their demands three days later.

Leaders of the church in Pondok Bambu have been negotiating with local Islamic leaders and government officials for the past eight years -- without results. Officials have continually refused permission for the Batak community to meet in their rented church premises. “We haven’t given up yet!” said Rev. Marihot Sagala.

Even churches meeting in hotel conference rooms, restaurants, shops or community halls face intimidation from Islamic groups. Rev. Suharto and the members of his Protestant church in Joglo, West Jakarta, used to meet in a warehouse in the city. However, they had to find another venue when Muslim militants threatened to burn down the warehouse if the church continued to meet there.

Tiberias Church, which meets in shop premises in Cinere, has experienced similar problems. According to Rev. Spenser Aditama, in late 2003 a mob pelted the church with stones and broke most of the windows. Afraid to act against the offenders through legal channels, the church itself paid for the damages.

Of the estimated 350 churches in and around Jakarta, about 60 percent operate without a government permit. Letter of Decision No. 137 has made the process of obtaining a church permit much more difficult, leaving thousands of Christians without a permanent, legal place of worship.