New Indonesian protest ends in another church closure

Protestant congregation in Sumatra forced to move on by officials caving in to petition by Muslim opponents
New Indonesian protest ends in another church closure

A sign erected outside the church in Sumatra’s Riau province reads 'This building is not a house of worship. Worship activities are prohibited here as it does not meet the requirements set out under a 2006 government decree.' (Photo supplied)

A Protestant congregation on the Indonesian island of Sumatra says it has been forced to relocate its church to avoid conflict with local Muslims opposed its presence.

Indragiri Hilir district government in Riau province decided during a meeting on Aug. 28 that members of the Pentecostal Church in Indonesia could no longer worship in their present church, which was also the home of its leader, Reverend Damianus Sinaga.

District chief Muhammad Wardan said he would provide a new location “to make the congregation feel secure and avoid untoward incidents” involving the Muslim community that rejected them.

He said the congregation would in the meantime have to attend services at the nearest available church, eight kilometers away. 

"There were 118 residents who signed a petition seeking the church’s closure,” Wardan told reporters.

The furor over the church, which opened in 2014, came to a head after a video circulated on social media in which police tried to halt a Sunday service in a marquee erected next to the church on Aug. 25.

In the video, officers forced the pastor to stop the service, while congregation members protested loudly that they be allowed to finish.

Local officials said the church did not meet requirements set out under a 2006 government decree, which requires the construction of any house of worship to have local approval.

Irma Riana Simanjuntak, spokeswoman for the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, told ucanews.com that the congregation had no choice but to accept the decision.

She questioned why the local authorities did not set a deadline for the congregation to move. “We will monitor the situation and try to ensure the congregation gets a cast-iron permit to build a new church,” she said.

Ahmad Nurcholish, a Muslim and an activist at the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, said the local government’s handling of the affair was ridiculous. Instead of caving in to a petition, the authorities "should educate those who reject the existence of others all about tolerance,” he said.

He said the government had clearly failed in its duty, which is to protect all citizens.

The closure adds to an increasing number of cases in which houses of worship are being shut or rejected by Muslim communities. According to the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, in the past decade, at least 199 churches have fallen victim to such persecution.

Halili, a Setara researcher, blamed the 2006 decree, which requires church officials to provide a list of names and signatures of 90 worshipers and get signed support from at least 60 residents and approval by a village head before a permit to build a house of worship is issued.

He said many groups used these stipulations as a tool to repress minority groups, which is why you see local officials respond positively to petitions from opponents, he said.

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“As long as this decree is not changed, such cases will continue to happen,” he said.

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