New Rash of Church Closings Sweeps Across Indonesia
Ryan Morgan, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia
International Christian Concern
I watched as the pastor began to cry, tears welling up in his eyes as he described the scene to me. It was May 18th, 2012, and there were hundreds upon hundreds of screaming fanatics hurling rocks, dirt, and even bags filled with urine at his congregation as the police stood by and watched. Signs hanging near his church read "Jesus is a dog" and "Kill the Christians." The rioters claimed the pastor had never obtained the proper permits to operate his church, and the local government agreed, sealing the building and prohibiting the pastor and his congregation from ever returning.
My interview with Pastor Palti Panjaitan of the GKI Yasmin church was eye opening. For years the world, including the United States, has lauded Indonesia as the prime example of a tolerant, Muslim democracy. The largest Muslim-majority nation in the world, Indonesia embraces a welcoming political philosophy known as "Pancasila," composed of five "inseparable" principles, including social justice. The vicious attack Pastor Palti described hardly seemed synonymous with Indonesia's pristine reputation. After further investigation, it proved to merely be the tip of the iceberg.
Across Indonesia in 2012, International Christian Concern (ICC) found that at least 50 churches like Pastor Palti's were forcibly shut down, almost always under pressure from radical Islamic groups. These groups usually claim the church lacks the proper permits to operate, based on a 2006 zoning law that requires "places of worship" to obtain signatures of approval from surrounding neighbors. The law is well-known to be a charade, as it is almost never applied to anyone except religious minorities. It is also well-known among Indonesia's church leaders that obtaining a permit can be nearly impossible and usually requires hefty bribery of local officials. In 2012, I was told of one very large church which had to spend more than a million U.S. dollars to obtain a permit that is, officially at least, supposed to be free.
By early 2013, the closure of churches had begun to garner international attention. In March, photos and video of a Batak Protestant Christian church being demolished by the government was picked up by international news agencies. The video showed radical Muslims cheering and applauding as the building was torn apart, all while members of the congregation stood by and watched helplessly. The next month, ICC took the issue to Congress and the State Department. Soon after, reports of churches being sealed shut by local governments plummeted to almost zero.
That is, until three weeks ago. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, a new rash of church closings appears to be sweeping across Indonesia. On Dec. 1, radicals belonging to the Islamic Defenders Front stormed a church service in North Sumatra, creating such havoc that the church members had to be escorted home by riot police. Future services were indefinitely suspended.
On Dec. 6, the Jakarta Globe reported that two new churches had been sealed shut, one in West Java and one in South Sulawesi. The church in South Sulawesi was subsequently demolished by local authorities, leaving hundreds of Christians in the area without a single church to attend.
Then on Monday, ICC received word that at least two more churches, located near Jakarta, had been forced to stop services by radicals last week, bringing the total number of closed churches to five in just three weeks.
The reason behind this month's rash of church closures, especially after seven months of relative quiet, is not exactly clear. It may be that the coming Christmas holiday has ignited always simmering anti-Christian sentiment among radical groups. In 2000, 16 were killed by bomb attacks on churches over the Christmas holiday.
On Monday, Indonesia's national police chief, General Sutarman, announced that 87,000 police personnel would be mobilized to "prevent disruptions to Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations." The majority of the police forces will be tasked with guarding churches and "other places of worship."
Yesterday, AsiaNews, a Catholic news service, also reported that an Islamic council in the province of Aceh had recently ordered Muslims not to participate in Christmas celebrations, calling the activities "forbidden."Aceh is the only province in Indonesia fully governed by Sharia law and was the site of several church closures last year.
The one thing that is clear is the need for an international spotlight to shine once again on what can only be defined as religious discrimination protected by badly misused legislation. Recent history has shown that without the glare of this spotlight, Indonesia's federal government has little, if any, incentive to protect its Christian population from mistreatment.
For interviews, contact Ryan Morgan, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia: RM-SEAsia@persecution.org
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