Katharina R. Lestari, Will Baxter & Ryan Dagur, Bekasi
Updated: February 06, 2015 04:51 PM GMT
The Rev Anna Nenoharan delivers a sermon at the Evangelical Christian Church in Bekasi, West Java (Photo by Will Baxter)
In many ways, Sunday services at the Evangelical Christian Church (Gekindo) in Bekasi are identical to those anywhere. The sermon, the worshipers, the songs and bibles are all familiar.
It’s the church itself that’s peculiar.
Since 2010, Sunday services have been run out of a three-story shophouse located in a strip mall in the Muslim-majority Bekasi district of West Java.
The most notable feature of the church is quite simply how non-descript everything looks. From the outside, there’s not even a sign to indicate its location. Inside, three of the whitewashed walls are adorned with little more than rotating fans and air-conditioning units. Red plastic chairs suffice as pews.
In the past the Evangelical Christian Church has owned two stand-alone churches. But, bowing to pressure from the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), local authorities shut down both by invoking a controversial decree which has been increasingly used to close churches.
“[The local government] wanted to make Bekasi a sharia-based district. So they didn’t want to issue church building permits,” said Reverend Anna Nenoharan, who spoke with ucanews.com following a recent Sunday service.
In 2005 and then again in 2009, members of FPI demolished the congregation’s churches with the permission of local authorities.
“Someone came and took everything,” said Nenoharan. “They took the tiles, the chairs, everything was lost. We still own the land, but it’s a garbage dump now.”
Since 2006, churches across Indonesia have found themselves struggling to comply with the contentious joint ministerial decree on places of worship. Issued by the religious affairs and home affairs ministries, the law lays out onerous requirements. Church officials must provide a list of the names and signatures of 90 worshippers and get signed support from at least 60 local residents and approval by the village head.
“Local residents often said they didn’t want to sign,” said the 70-year-old Nenoharan. “Our last effort was three years ago, when we got their signatures. But we were rejected by the district head, who didn’t want to issue building permits for places of worship.”
Nenoharan was also attacked in 2005 by members of FPI, who kicked and stomped on her, calling her a “pig” and “dog” before threatening to behead her if she didn’t cease holding Sunday services.
Despite the years of persecution, the congregation always found ways to continue holding regular services. During their years without an official house of worship, they often worshipped at a member’s home, or in a rented space.
Then, in 2010, after multiple efforts to secure a permit had failed, the congregation purchased the shophouse where they now hold church services.
In a sense, the experience has worn them down.
“We don’t want to try [for a permit] any more because it seems useless,” said the pastor, adding that the shophouse is the safest option for now.
Others appear to have arrived at the same conclusion. In the same strip mall, at least 18 other congregations occupy shophouses. The most recent was set up in August.
From the outside, there's little, if anything, to indicate that this Bekasi strip mall is home to 19 church congregations (Photo by Will Baxter)
Meanwhile, other Christians have found themselves pushed even further underground.
After the congregation of the Christian Church in Indonesia (GKI) Taman Yasmin in Bogor, West Java, was banned from using their church in 2010, they began holding services in congregants’ homes.
“We do it secretly. It prevents us from getting in trouble,” said Bona Sigalingging, spokesman of GKI Taman Yasmin.
Shortly after its building permit was revoked in 2010, the partially-built GKI Taman Yasmin church was sealed off by the local government.
Though the Supreme Court ruled that the congregation could reopen its church, the local mayor has ignored the decision, putting them in a precarious situation.
Since 2012, they’ve held Sunday services twice a month on the street in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta in the hopes of gaining the central government’s attention. But two years on, their church remains off limits.
Weak enforcement of laws
The main problem regarding issues of religious tolerance in Indonesia is weak law enforcement, according to secretary of the Setara Institute’s national council Fr Antonius Benny Susetyo.
“The decree [on places of worship] isn’t a problem. The problem lies in its implementation,” he told ucanews.com.
Far too often the decree is manipulated to persecute minority religious groups. And government officials, not wanting to be perceived as “un-Islamic”, frequently pander to hardline Muslim groups because they know the key to re-election is winning the Muslim vote.
“[Our leaders] aren’t strong enough. Even police officers often fail in putting the law into practice,” said Fr Susetyo, who is also the former executive secretary of the Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference.
For example, the decree itself doesn’t clearly define whether the 60 local residents’ signatures should be from Muslims or from followers of any religion.
“In reality, the signatures must be from Muslims. That’s difficult,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chief of Setara Institute.
Indonesia’s evolving political landscape has contributed greatly to the influence that hardline Islamic groups have over local governments on issues such as church building permits.
“In Soeharto’s regime, everything was centralized. But now—as part of democracy—we have more local autonomy. It gives some authority to the local governments,” said Naipospos.
Fr Susetyo said that under the current political system “local government is more powerful than the central government on the issue of freedom of religion”.
Meanwhile, “the central government doesn’t realize that the local governments are part of the problem”, Naipospos said.
Many religious rights monitors agree that policies undertaken by outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have had a negative impact on religious freedom in Indonesia. After aligning himself with conservative Muslim groups during his 2004 presidential campaign, Islamic hardliners began targeting churches without building permits, according to Ahmad Suaedy, executive director of the Wahid Institute.
“President Yudhoyono almost never handles the issue of church building permits. However, the problem isn’t the government. The government let radical and conservative groups hold campaigns and so on,” he said.
“I think the motivation is actually politics. Radical and conservative groups can just give money to security officers when a church is sealed off,” he said.
Members of the Evangelical Christian Church take part in a Sunday service in Bekasi, West Java (Photo by Will Baxter)
According to the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, around 400 churches have been attacked, closed down or torched since 2007, with 55 targeted last year alone.
For its part, the Islamic Defenders Front claims it has an obligation to draw attention to every violator of the decree.
“What if the law enforcement officers fail to deal with the issue?” said Habib Muhsin bin Ahmad Al-Attas, chairman of FPI. “As a member of the society, we are obliged to warn about everyone violating the law, including the Churches.”
However, Al-Attas brushed off claims that the group promotes religious intolerance.
“We are tolerant and uphold diversity. We respect each other. We have the spirit of tolerance,” he added.
The government acknowledges that issues related to church building permits remain unresolved, but insists they are working to address the issue.
“If there’s a regulation that gives a difficulty to a certain religion or community, we will evaluate it,” Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin told ucanews.com.
“We will verify and evaluate cases that have emerged. All parties sit together. [We] should not hold on to mistakes for too long,” he said.
Meanwhile, Reverend Nenoharan is not optimistic that the government will give the Evangelical Christian Church a permit to build a new standalone structure.
“We feel really discriminated against by the government, and the local people,” she said. “We want a special home for God. But we cannot do anything about it. We can only turn to the Lord.”
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