Congregations denied building permits, forbidden to worship in private homes.
by Samuel Rionaldo
JAKARTA, September 29 (Compass) -- Local authorities recently ordered 12 churches in the sub-district of Rancaekek, Bandung, Indonesia, to close their doors. The order came after Muslim clerics protested that the churches were meeting illegally.
The Christians admit they do not have the legal permits required to conduct worship services in private homes. However, these “house church” meetings seemed to be the only option after local authorities refused permission to build proper worship facilities.
Church leaders told Compass that the congregations living in Rancaekek had applied for permission to build churches as early as March 1993, when the Bumi Rancaekek Kencana government housing project was established.
However, the first and subsequent applications for church permits were turned down.
“We submitted another application on June 12, 1995; again on January 20, 2000, and on August 27, 2004,” explained Rev. Bungaran Silitonga who leads the Rancaekek Christian Communication Forum. All four applications were rejected on the grounds that local residents did not want churches in the area.
Also, officials said the land was reserved for housing, not for places of worship.
According to a September 10 report by Komintra news service, flyers were distributed to people living in the housing project in August. Among other things, the flyers warned Muslim residents to stay away from visiting missionaries and Christians.
The same month, the Forum Silahturahmi Ulama Cendikiawan Muslim (FSUCM or Fellowship of Muslim Scholars and Intellectuals) launched a campaign to close unlicensed churches in Rancaekek. The group, led by Koko Komaruddin, sent a letter to the local government objecting to the practice of churches meeting in private homes.
The complaint was based on a 1949 Letter of Decision issued by the Bandung local government regulating the establishment of places of worship, and Letter of Decision No. 28/1990 issued by the governor of West Java, forbidding the conversion of a private dwelling into a place of worship.
On August 19, 2004, leaders of the twelve disputed churches were invited to a meeting with local government officials and members of the FSUCM. At the meeting, the Christian ministers were asked to sign a document agreeing to stop their worship services. “We refused to sign it,” Silitonga said.
A second meeting was held on September 1, during which Komaruddin gave an ultimatum to the churches: they must halt services by September 5 or face the consequences.
The original owner of the land, Mr. Sobari, also addressed the meeting, saying he had sold the land to the government to build houses -- not churches.
Two days later, Elyadi Argaraharja, vice-district officer of Bandung, released Letter of Decision No.4522/829/Kesbang. The decree said the 12 churches must be closed because homes had been converted to places of worship. According to Argaraharja, this decision was made to “avoid conflict and create tolerance.”
Komaruddin and the FSUCM followed this on September 5 with the release of a flyer entitled “Stop Church Meetings in Houses!” The flyer declared that, beginning on September 6, church meetings in private homes in the Rancaekek housing project would no longer be permitted.
Rev. John Simon Timorason, head of the West Java Christian Communication Forum, said the move was nothing new. “They tried something similar in 1995,” he told Compass, “and again in 2000, when they tried to close the Tabernacle Pentecostal Church.
“There was no problem between churches and local residents. All of this was stirred up by Komaruddin and the FSUCM. He provoked our neighbors to take up this issue against us. Before this we had no real complaints.”
The order to stop meeting in their homes left the Christians with a serious dilemma: they had no other place to gather for worship.
Timorason and other church leaders began negotiations with the local government. Finally on September 11, Argaraharja offered the use of an old, vacant warehouse in the middle of a sea of rice paddies. However, as soon as the Christians began cleaning the building, residents of the housing project objected and permission to use the warehouse was withdrawn.
Left without a place of worship, the Christians met again in their former venues on September 12. This move drew criticism from government officials who said the church leaders had broken the law.
The 12 churches represent a growing problem in Indonesia. Muslim groups have forced many other unlicensed churches in West Java to close. (See Compass Direct, “Muslim Radicals Harass Indonesian Churches,” May 16, 2003; and “Protestant Churches Sustain Attacks,” January 26, 2004.) The problem stems from the fact that local officials rarely grant permission for a church building to be erected and they don’t allow congregations to meet in private venues. Many Christians feel they have no option but to meet illegally.
They say this is an abuse of their basic right to religious freedom.
Church closures have occurred in several districts in West Java in recent weeks. For example, the Gereja Sidang Kristus (GSK, Assembly of Christ) church in Bekasi was closed following an attack during services on August 29. The attacking mob, led by members of the Bekasi Islam Defender’s Front, caused significant damage to church property, but no injuries were reported.
Suhartono said the relationship between GSK and its neighbors was good until the attack happened. “There were only one or two people that seemed to dislike us,” he said.
Police arrested 20 people for their involvement in the Bekasi attack, but the suspects were released soon afterward.
On August 23, another mob forced the closure of three churches -- Caro Batak Church, the Indonesian Protestant Church and Bethel Church -- in the Cileungsi sub-district of Bogor, West Java.
The Rev. Karel Silitonga, a senior church official in the district, said Muslim clerics and the Bogor Islam Defender’s Front had provoked local residents to attack the churches. The churches had been meeting without complaints from their neighbors since 1997.
Timorason says West Java has always been a difficult area for Christians. “We will try to settle this through proper legal channels,” he told Compass, “and I hope the case will be resolved quickly.”
Twelve churches in Rancaekek, Bandung, were ordered to cease services in the first week of September, 2004. The names of the churches are:
Gereja Baptis Independen Indonesia (GBII - Baptist Church)
Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP - Caro Batak Church)
Gereja Katolik (Roman Catholic Church)
Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia (GKII - Christian and Missionary Alliance Church)
Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI – Church of Christ in Indonesia)
Gereja Kristen Jawa (GKJ - Java Christian Church)
Gereja Kristen Oikumene (GKO - Ecumenical Church)
Gereja Kristen Pasundan (GKP – Pasundan Church)
Gereja Pentakosta (Pentecostal Church)
Gereja Pentakosta di Indonesia (GPdI - Pentecostal Church in Indonesia)
Gereja Pentakosta Tabernakel (GPT - Tabernacle Pentecostal Church)
Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP – Batak Church)