Two more Indonesian churches have been taken out of commission in Sulawesi and West Java over the last week as Christians and local governments once again locked horns over the issue of official building permits.
“In 1989, the building was transformed into a church,” Arruan Lenden, a leader of the South Sulawesi Christian Church (GKSS), told the Jakarta Globe on Friday. “Because it was made of wood, no permit was required.”
The Pangkep district government has been dismantling the church — located around 75 kilometers north of Makassar — since Wednesday, and the wooden structure was still being taken down on Friday.
The 75-square-meter building was originally put up as a Sunday school in 1985. At that time, some 400 local Christians were using a police dormitory as a place of worship, but the congregation was later told to move on to a room located at the district government offices. Church leaders maintain they were then given verbal permission to use the Sunday school on Jalan Andi Maurada as a church.
Arruan said that in 2011 they had asked the district chief for permission to renovate and to issue a building permit for the church. A permit for a house of worship requires 60 signatures from people living in the village where the building is located. While the congregation counted around 400 people as members, many of them live in surrounding villages and communities, and their signatures would not have been valid on a building permit.
The church was forced to stop the project to repair the roof because of a protest by the hard-line Islamic Joint Forum (FBUI).
“The condition of the building is worse this year; it’s rickety and leaking,” Arruan said. “We sent a letter to the Religious Affairs Ministry asking for them to issue a recommendation but they did not reply in time. “
The church decided to go ahead with the renovation on Nov. 21, 2013. After the project began the reply from the Religious Affairs Ministry arrived demanding that Arruan find 60 signatures from the local community to repair a roof.
“We have no problem with the residents,” Arruan said. “But they only gave us verbal permit, they refused to sign because they did not want to bear the consequences later.”
Preaching to the choir
The local residents’ fears may well be understandable. In April this year, a particularly nasty banner appeared outside a South Tangerang mosque saying that any Muslims found to have signed a permit for the Protestant Church in Western Indonesia (GPIB) Obor Banten in Pondok Jagung Timur would face profoundly serious consequences.
A banner outside the mosque read, “The Islamic preachers of Pondok Jagung Timur hereby declare that we will not take care of the remains of those who support or agree to the construction of the church in this neighborhood.”
The church had secured the correct permit, but the preachers responsible for the banner maintained they had been forged or faked.
In Nov. 28, 2013, district chief Abdul Rahman Assagaf decided to seal the building. On Dec. 2, 2013, the church was asked to begin dismantling the building within two days.
“On Wednesday, a team from the Pangkep Public Works Agency dismantled the roof, and they were still dismantling the building today [Friday],” Arruan said.
Arruan said the congregation was disappointed that they had been denied a place to celebrate Christmas but that they would work to resolve the matter through the appropriate channels.
Razing the roof
Rahman told the Jakarta Globe that the government had not ordered the building dismantled, only sealed.
“We have to be cautious of potential conflict in that area,” he said. “The building was located in a Muslim residential areas. The residents allowed them to use the building to worship, but it would be a problem if they wanted it to be a permanent church. If there was a leakage problem, they could just change the roof, not renovate the whole building.”
Rahman maintained that the government would not have sealed the building if the church had managed to find 60 signatures from the village.
Bandung: Signed, sealed
In a West Java subdistrict east of Bandung, a Pentecostal church built in 1987 looked set to suffer a similar fate after the government sealed the building last week, again citing a permit impasse.
“We suggest the church does not conduct any services before receiving the building permit,” Jatinangor subdistrict head Bambang Rianto said, as quoted by Tempo.
The church, located in Mekargalih village in Sumedang district, filed a permit application to the government but village chief, Arief Saefulloh, refused to sign in February, claiming that he had lost the paperwork.
Bambang said that he had assigned a team of officials to check the validity of signatures of the residents who had approved the church construction.
The church has endured a difficult 2013. Earlier in the year, the priest of the church, Bernhard Maukar was arrested and served three months for conducting a service in an unlicensed building. On Nov. 24, 2013, a church service was stopped when an intolerant group stormed the church.
The pastor’s wife, Corry Maukar, confirmed that the church had ceased activity since the end of November. The congregation members — more than 600 adults and 400 children — had moved to a shophouse nearby.
“We’re not allowed to worship; we have to wait for the permit,” Corry said on Friday afternoon. “A meeting in Nov. 29, 2013 involving all sides, including the district chief and neighborhood unit chief, decided to verify the signatures of residents.”
Corry who is a member of the verification team said that she had received verification on 42 of the residents who had signed their agreement.
“The village chief refused to sign the paper because he claimed many of the signatures were fake,” Corry said. “But when I asked him which of the signatures were fake, he could not answer.”
The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) estimated earlier in 2013 that 85 percent of houses of worship — mosques, churches, Balinese pura, et cetera — did not possess a permit.
The successful acquisition of local- government permission is not, however, a guarantee that a church will be allowed to exist in Indonesia.
HKBP Taman Sari church in Setu, Bekasi, was demolished in March by the district administration. GKI Yasmin, a protestant church in Bogor, received a permit, but it was later rescinded by the city’s mayor on the grounds that the agreement with local residents had been fabricated.
The St. Bernadet Catholic church in Ciledug, South Tangerang, had waited 23 years for permission from the local government to break ground on a house of worship. They received a permit on Sept. 11 this year, but a protest at the construction site by several hundred Sunni Muslims meant that never a stone was laid.
Barriers to entry
Barriers to church construction as well as shutterings and demolitions of existing religious buildings is one thread in the frequently problematic fabric of religious coexistence in Indonesia.
Data from the Setara Institute show 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, a significant increase on the 216 cases in 2010.
Fatal attacks on Ahmadiyah Muslims and Shiite Muslims by local Sunni communities have lent credence to the view that intolerance is on the rise in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but many of the problems are woven out of the country’s strong decentralized political framework and abrasive hard-line groups who are permitted by the national government to operate without fear of serious prosecution.
After the St. Bernadet construction site was picketed by an aggressive collective of hard-liners, one observer told this newspaper that the protest was not a legitimate expression by local residents but an opportunistic attack on free expression by outsiders.
“They use the issue of ‘Christianization’ to raise fear among residents on the argument that, if there’s a church nearby, it will later convert people because of the church’s social activities,” Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy director of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, told the Jakarta Globe at the time. “This group moves from one place to another, actively seeking information on churches that are in the process of trying to get a permit or those that don’t have a permit.”
When church leaders and the local administration entered a standoff outside HKBP Taman Sari, a crowd of hard-liners appeared on the grounds to demand the destruction of the simple bamboo and brick building. The hard-liners cheered as a bulldozer tore through the building, but they were on their motorbikes heading out of town less than an hour later, leaving the tearful congregation to pick through the pieces.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has frequently found himself on the receiving end of blame for what some say is an increase of religious intolerance in Indonesia.
Human Rights Watch published an article in August entitled “Putting a Smiley Face on Indonesia’s Religious Intolerance,” that criticized Yudhoyono for retaining “a minister for religious affairs who encourages extremism.”
In November, the unsuitability of Minister Suryadharma Ali to office was once again evident after he went on the record to suggest that the faith of the Ahmadiyah Muslims should be disbanded.
“A religion that looks similar [to Islam] but is clearly not the same has prompted anger from some believers, especially Muslims who are the majority,” Suryadharma said last month. “It eventually creates horizontal conflict, an unfavorable situation not only for the followers of both religions but also for the people who live around the conflict area.”
The role of hard-line groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in ramming their beliefs down the throats of the country’s minorities, and the tacit approval given to their activities by government ministers including Suryadharma and Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi, have been documented in incidents from Tangerang to Madura.
Central government figures, such as Yudhoyono, are wont to seek refuge in the powerlessness of the central government to interfere in local government matters.
“The central government often washes its hands by saying that local governments should be the ones to find solutions,” Bonar said in September.
Yudhoyono has accepted international praise for his commitment to religious tolerance, much to the ire of human rights groups. While the nation’s Christians, Shiites and Ahmadiyah Muslims have struggled with increasing attention from influential Islamist groups, mayors like Rahmat Effendi, in Bekasi, and Diani Budiarto, in Bogor, are permitted to hold onto their positions despite evidence of supporting hard-liners or ignoring Supreme Court rulings.
Suryadharma, the nation’s controversial religious affairs minister, has survived his harshest critics despite numerous controversial statements and public relations gaffes.
But people like Arruan are rarely afforded such breaks. Instead he will be left to contemplate the seemingly intractable problem in Sulawesi while he waits to find out whether he will be able to rebuild the roof of his church. An immediate solution has already been decided on, but what happens in the longer term is out if his hands.
“If they allow us, we will use a tent on the same land to conduct church services,” he said. “But we do hope that government would allow us to rebuild: this world does not belong only to them, the majority, but to all people, of all religions.” The Jakarta Globe