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Compass – Denied permits and ordered not to worship in public or at home, churches in East Bekasi, West Java , have taken temporary refuge in a Social Affairs Agency office. Trouble for the churches began in September, when local officials ordered congregations meeting in a rented housing facility to close because they did not have the required permits.

A joint decree issued in 1969 by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Religious Affairs – known popularly as the SKB – requires all religious groups to seek permission from neighbors and district officials before they build or establish a place of worship.

Since Christians are a distinct minority in Indonesia , the decree has made it virtually impossible to secure a church permit. When officials refused permits for three churches in the Jatimulya housing facility in East Bekasi , the congregations altered residential buildings to cater to large numbers of worshipers. The total number attending services before the dispute began was approximately 1,500.

Following the September closure order, the Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance (AGAP, an alliance of Muslim extremist groups) began to enforce the order. AGAP members attacked the Pentecostal Church of Indonesia El Shaddai on October 2. They also forced a Lutheran (HKBP) and a Presbyterian (GEKINDO) church in the complex to cease services.

The Rev. Maruli Tobing of the HKBP told Compass that a mob closed the road leading to his church with stones and other obstacles to prevent people from entering.

The Rev. Pestaria Hutajulu of the GEKINDO church said her congregation had been meeting in the complex since 1989. The congregation applied for a permit several times but resorted to “house church” meetings when the applications were refused.

“We were asked to collect signatures from the neighbors,” she explained. “But someone told them not to sign.”

Tobing encountered the same problem. “We applied three times for a permit with no success.”

Following the pressure from AGAP, church members decided to meet on the street. A somewhat diminished congregation gathered in an open field at the housing facility on October 9. Potential conflict was averted when some 50 lawyers arrived from Jakarta to take part in the service, according to local media reports.

When church members returned to the field on October 16, some 300 Muslims had already laid out their prayer mats and were conducting their own worship service.

The Christians moved to a nearby street, but Muslim radicals approached them and ordered them to disperse. Someone in the mob shoved Hutajulu, who fell into a drain. An eyewitness said the policemen on duty that morning stood by and did not intervene.

Following the disturbance, members of all three churches said they would continue worshiping in the street until, in the words of Hutajulu, “the Lord gives us a way out.”

Around 500 Christians from the HKBP church “scuffled” with 200 Muslims on Sunday, October 29, after a third street service, The Jakarta Post reported.

Following the clash, district officials offered the use of the Social Affairs Agency office for two months while they searched for a building site for each of the churches. The agreement was reached at a meeting between Christian and Muslim leaders, police and district authorities, and a member of the House of Representatives on October 30.

In return, the Christians have agreed not to hold services in their homes.

The campaign to close churches in West Java , though not new, intensified in May after three local Christians were arrested on charges of “Christianizing” Muslim children. (See Compass Direct, “Teachers Appeal ‘Christianization’ Conviction in Indonesia ,” September 23.)

Extremist groups including AGAP and the Islamic Defenders Front have forced at least 30 provincial churches to close in recent months, although some churches re-opened within a matter of weeks.

Moderate Muslim leaders have joined former President Abdurrahman Wahid in condemning the attacks on churches.

A debate still rages over the function and relevance of the SKB, which was issued 36 years ago. As a ministerial decree, the SKB lacks the status of a federal law but has been treated as such by local officials and extremist groups. Government ministers recently promised a revision of the decree.

The SKB outlines the correct procedure for requesting and granting permits for places of worship. The opening text affirms “each citizen’s freedom to embrace their own religion and to worship according to their own religion and belief.” A later clause, however, restricts this freedom to religious activities that do not contradict existing laws or threaten “public order and the security of the state.”