Mob Forces Church to Close in West Java, Indonesia

Monday, March 27, 2006

Revision of church decree completed; Christian leaders express concern.
by Samuel Rionaldo

JAKARTA, March 27 (Compass) -- A mob of some 200 Muslim vigilantes forced Christians in Bogor, West Java, to abandon their church service on Sunday, The Jakarta Post reported today.

Police were present but failed to stop the mob, composed of residents from the Griya Bukit Jaya housing complex.

The mob forced approximately 190 Christians to leave a Pentecostal church building and agree to end services. They claimed the church had violated a 1999 decree issued by the governor of West Java and a 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) regulating places of worship.

Both decrees require approval from neighbors and local authorities before a church can be established.

At a meeting between Muslim and Christian leaders and civic authorities on March 22, Christian leaders rejected demands to close their unregistered churches – pointing out that local authorities had repeatedly turned down their applications for church permits, despite a constitutional guarantee for freedom of worship.

Islamic groups have attacked and forcibly closed at least 60 churches in West Java over the past two and a half years, citing a lack of permits. Many of these churches have reopened, but they face ongoing attacks and harassment.

Fekky Daniel Yangki Tatulus, pastor of the church forced to close yesterday, said he believed his church would qualify under a revised version of the SKB, which was formally approved by Religious Affairs Minister M. Maftuh Basyuni and Home Minister M. Ma’ruf on Thursday (March 23).

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono must give his approval before the revised decree comes into effect.

Revised Decree

Under the revised SKB, congregations must meet three basic conditions before they can build or establish a church: proof of at least 90 existing members, the approval of 60 neighbors of different faith backgrounds and approval from the local authorities.

Building permits from local authorities and the Communication Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB), newly established under the SKB, are also required for the construction of new churches.

If local people object to places of worship but local officials and the FKUB grant consent, officials must find an alternative site for churches.

The decree makes room for churches that cannot immediately meet these requirements. Congregations numbering fewer than 90 can apply for a temporary two-year permit for a house of worship. The decree also requires local authorities to protect and assist religious groups that have yet to obtain a permit for a house of worship.

Social and Legal Concerns

The government plans a nationwide awareness campaign to inform people of the changes. Christian leaders, however, have expressed concern over potential abuse of the revisions and over conflict with existing bylaws.

“Some existing regional regulations must be revoked and revised to be in line with the new decree,” warned Benny Susetyo of the Indonesian Archbishops Conference.

Nathan Setiabudi and Weinata Sairin of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) have suggested that the government suspend implementation of the revisions until people fully understand them.

Sairin said the SKB contradicts Article 29(b) of the constitution, which guarantees Indonesian citizens the freedom to choose their own religion and to worship according to the dictates of that religion.

“The freedom to worship is clearly stated in the constitution, so this decree is not actually needed,” said Sairin. “But now the most important thing is the implementation in the field, because people’s levels of freedom, education and the quality of religious harmony vary from one region to another.”

Pastor Bambang Widjaja, head of the Indonesian Bible Fellowship (Persekutuan Injili Indonesia), said the government should have dropped the decree altogether. He said the revised decree would only bring more trouble for Christians and strengthen Muslim fundamentalist groups.

Member of Parliament Constant Ponggawa disagreed so strongly with the changes that he asked President Yudhoyono not to sign the revised decree, local media reported last week. “[The revised decree] is loaded with the potential to put added pressure on minority groups,” Ponggawa told reporters.

Several Christian and Ahmadiyah (a Muslim sect) leaders will seek a judicial review through the Supreme Court, claiming the decree contravenes the constitution and disregards human rights.

Statistics provided by the Indonesian Christian Communication Forum show a total of 977 churches destroyed or forced to close from August 1945 (when Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch) to August 2005.

Compass has reported 11 forced church closures in West Java since last August. An additional church in Cikarang Baru, West Java, was forced to halt construction of a new facility in October 2005.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct