Behind Church Closures, the Specter of Intolerance

The combined congregations of GKI Yasmin Church and HKBP Filadelfia hold an outdoor service at Merdeka Palace on Dec. 25, 2013. (JG Photo/Afriadi Hikmal)

The combined congregations of GKI Yasmin Church and HKBP Filadelfia hold an outdoor service at Merdeka Palace on Dec. 25, 2013. (JG Photo/Afriadi Hikmal)

Church officials in Cianjur, West Java, have reported local authorities to the national human rights commission for forcing shut seven churches there, the latest targets of a controversial government decree on how houses of worship may be set up.

“We are reporting the Cianjur district administration to Komnas HAM [the National Commission for Human Rights] over their forceful closure of seven churches in Cianjur,” Oferlin Hia, the chairman of the Association of Churches in Cianjur, said on Monday.

“We just want to demand the protection of our rights as citizens,” he added. “Clearly, the state has neglected our right to worship freely.”

The affected churches are the Indonesian Pentecostal Church of Cianjur (GPdI); the Pentecostal Movement Church; the New Covenant Christian Church; the Bethlehem Pentecostal Movement Church; the Indonesia Bethel Church (GBI); the Full Gospel International Church; and the Assemblies of God Church (GSJA).

Oferlin said the district authorities’ decision to close down the churches on the pretext of permit violations was regrettable, noting that the churches played a central role in the lives of the Christian communities in Cianjur.

He said some of the churches had been around since 1977, predating a 2006 decree from the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Home Affairs Ministry that dictates the conditions for establishing a house of worship.

The ministries, citing the need for houses of worship not to be a source of friction in the communities in which they are based, laid out several requirements that rights activists and religious freedom advocates argue make it nearly impossible to set up anything other than a mosque.

The conditions include getting the signed approval for the new building from 60 local households of different faiths; approval from the municipal or district religious affairs office and the ward and subdistrict heads; and a recommendation from the local Interfaith Communication Forum, or FKUB — which in many cases comprises hard-line Islamic groups that tend to be against the setting up of churches in their communities.

Making life difficult

While the decree ostensibly applies only to new houses of worship, local authorities, particularly in West Java, have forced long-existing churches there to comply, often under pressure from Muslim hard-liners.

“Many churches have been around since before the issuance of the decree,” says Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the deputy director of the Setara Institute, which advocates for religious tolerance and pluralism. “So now when they try to get a permit, they find it very difficult. For instance, in Jember [in East Java] alone there are currently 85 churches that are operating without permits.”

Bonar calls the process to obtain a permit — which for churches that predate the 2006 decree is needed in the event of renovations to the building structure or expansion — “onerous and long-drawn-out.”

He adds that local authorities are often partial and under pressure from hard-line groups, thus less willing to issue permits to Christian congregations.

“Most of the time, getting the urban ward chief’s approval is the hardest part,” he says. “There are elements of fear and intimidation as well. Often, local authorities come under pressure from intolerant groups actively trying to seek out churches that do not have permits. They often come to the offices of ward chiefs and subdistrict heads saying ‘Are you a Muslim or not? If yes, you have to support us.’

“Many of the local authorities are not willing to risk their ire,” Bonar says.

‘Rigid and inflexible’

The national rights commission, which received the churches’ complaint against the Cianjur authorities, agrees that local officials are making minority congregations jump through hoops just to be allowed to worship in peace.

“They should not be so quick to close down and disqualify [places of worships], that is not in line with human rights,” says Imdadun, a commissioner with Komnas HAM, accusing the local administrations of being “rigid and inflexible” in dealing with places of worships that lack the required permits.

“If there are places of worship that are already operating but lack the necessary permits, the local administration should facilitate them so that they can comply and obtain the required permits. Facilitating them means making things easy for them,” he says.

While respect for the protection of minorities is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution and democratic system, in reality, Imdadun says, this central tenet often goes unheeded.

“It is important that [local] administrations stay neutral. The government must adhere to the Constitution,” he says.

Fachry Ali, a researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI, and an expert in sectarian politics, tells the Jakarta Globe that the potential rise in religious tensions is especially concerning in light of the looming presidential election.

“There are those who are anti-democracy, and they’re the ones who will try to delegitimize our democratic system,” he says. “This [religious tension] will obviously damage the process of the presidential election.”

40 church closures a year

The Cianjur church closures are the latest in a long string of similar incidents, most of them in West Java.

One high-profile case that has been dragging on for years is that of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor, which remains closed off by the city authorities on the trumped-up pretext of building permit violations — despite two Supreme Court rulings ordering local authorities to reopen the building to worshipers.

Similarly, the HKBP Filadefia church in Bekasi was forced shut after local authorities refused to issue it a permit. Members of both congregations routinely hold Sunday services outside the State Palace in Central Jakarta, in an as-yet unfruitful bid to get President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to notice their plight.

At the current rate, an average of 40 churches are being shut down every year, mostly for a lack of permits, says Bonar. He adds the real number could be much higher, with many churches not reporting their closure.

Bonar said religious intolerance in Indonesia is currently on the rise.

“There is a growing tendency toward intolerance among the public. There are many factors behind this such as declining welfare, the spread of radical thoughts, and the prevalence of hard-line groups,” he said.

Activists say a strong government role is crucial in addressing the problem of intolerance and declining pluralism.

But with his term marked by various acts of intolerance against minorities such Christians, Shiites and Ahmadis — the latter two Islamic minorities deemed deviant by Sunni hard-liners — protecting minorities and upholding religious tolerance has not been the hallmark of the Yudhoyono administration, Bonar says.

He notes that while the president’s own intentions may be well-placed, there are those around him who have held him back in this respect.

“President SBY is doubtless a pluralistic guy, but some of the parties in his political coalition are not for pluralism,” he says.

Yudhoyono’s six-party ruling coalition includes all four Islamic parties from the House of Representatives: the Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS; the United Development Party, or PPP; the National Mandate Party, or PAN; and the National Awakening Party, or PKB.

While the PAN and the PKB espouse a moderate brand of Islam, the same is not true of the PKS, the country’s biggest Islamic party, and the PPP, its oldest, Bonar says.

“The PKS and the PPP have never sought to protect the interests of minorities. They’re holding [Yudhoyono] back,” he says.

Both parties, along with the PAN, have since joined the coalition of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra. Worryingly, members of the coalition have drummed up religious undertones in their campaigning.

In its manifesto, Gerindra calls for state oversight in maintaining the “purity of religious teaching,” seen by many as a veiled threat against minority Islamic groups like the Shiites and the Ahmadiyah. Gerindra officials earlier this week denied the sentiment, but said they would reword their manifesto.

Islamic hard-liners and militants have long cited their defense of this “purity” of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence as justification for their attacks and discriminatory policies against minority groups like the Ahmadiyah and Shiites, which they deem deviant because of their differing schools of Islamic thought.

Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s younger brother and they deputy chief patron of Gerindra, said on Monday the call for religious purity was aimed at countering genuinely new and “deviant groups,” adding that similar policies existed in the West. He cited the case of the Church of Scientology, which many countries, including Germany and Belgium, have refused to recognize as a religion because of its controversial tenets.

Meanwhile, officials from the PAN have called for the support of militant Islamic hard-liners, including the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, to support Prabowo.

For its part, the FPI has already indicated it may back Prabowo, with its grand imam telling followers that the group would “instantly” endorse Prabowo if he committed to slew of conditions, including disbanding the Ahmadiyah and evaluating the police’s counterterrorism squad, Densus 88, which he accused of “murdering Muslims.”

The camp of the other presidential candidate, Joko Widodo, has also stirred up controversy in religious grounds, with vice presidential contender Jusuf Kalla challenging Prabowo to a Koran recital competition against Joko in Aceh — the only province in the country to adopt Islamic shariah, albeit not on a full scale.

Bonar says he is concerns that these recent political developments do not seem to bode well for improved religious tolerance under the new government, no matter which candidate wins. He says both Joko and Prabowo have not given enough attention to issues concerning the protection of minorities. The JakARTA Globe

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