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Compass Direct (03/23/06) – A local council in West Java has warned several congregations in the Rancaekek Kencana housing complex in Bandung to abandon their “nomadic” cell group system, which allows limited numbers of Christians to meet together in private homes.

In letters to the churches over the past three months, the council also warned Christians to stop meeting in buildings that were converted some years ago into permanent – though unregistered – worship facilities.

Civic authorities first issued a warning in September 2004, after the Forum Silahturahmi Ulama Cendikiawan Muslim (FSUCM or Fellowship of Muslim Scholars and Intellectuals) pointed out that the churches had no permits and were therefore illegal.

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 church permits.

Some of the churches in Rancaekek applied for permits as early as 1993, when the housing complex was built, but local authorities repeatedly turned down their applications.

In a letter dated January 13, Kesbang Limnas (loosely translated as the Office of National Unity and Social Protection) ordered Christians in Rancaekek to comply with the law and “stop using ordinary houses as churches.”

In a second letter on January 20, Kesbang Limnas said civic officials and FSUCM members had reported ongoing worship and prayer at these facilities on January 15.

The letter said these worship activities violated a number of regulations – including a directive from Elyadi Argaraharja, vice-district officer of Bandung , dated September 3, 2005 – banning the use of residential homes as places of worship. (See Compass Direct, “ Indonesia Closes 12 Churches in Bandung ,” September 29, 2004.)

To “prevent conflict in the housing complex,” the January 20 letter said, “we reiterate that residential buildings whose function has been changed to enable Christian worship should be restored back to their original purposes. If this warning is neglected, we will take stern action according to the law.”

A copy of the letter was sent to Bandung police and military headquarters, the office of the Department of Religious Affairs in Bandung , the chairman of the Muslim leaders’ council in Rancaekek and the chairman of FSUCM.

Pastor F. Marpaung, who leads the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church, meeting in a converted house on Teratai Street, received another letter on March 12 warning his congregation to stop services in the building.

After the initial warning in 2004, Marpaung struggled to find facilities large enough for the 77 families who regularly attended services. He tried shifting services from one house to another each Sunday, but the system was difficult to organize and far from ideal – so the church reverted to the original building on Teratai Street.

Attendance is now down to about 100 people on any given Sunday.

Marpaung said church members were cautious, and the services at Teratai Street were not noisy. He admitted, however, that a significant crowd would spill out of the building once the service was over.

A pastor of another church in the complex, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Compass this week that Kesbang Limnas had sent three letters asking him to stop holding services in a residential building. The letters threatened severe measures if worship continued.

The pastor said his small congregation was still meeting in a converted house because local authorities had repeatedly turned down his application for a church permit, leaving him no viable alternative.

“Where else can we go?” the pastor said. “Now we carry out our worship on tikars (traditional mats) rather than chairs.” When asked why they did so, he answered, “We have to be wise. If our neighbors pray on mats, then so should we.”

This congregation had also tried meeting in each other’s homes, choosing a different house every week, but reverted to their original building after Kesbang Limnas sent a warning letter to a church member whose home had been used for one of the meetings.

In early March, a committee appointed by the government completed its revision of the controversial Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB). The revisions must be approved by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, however, before they take effect.

Christian leaders say the revised decree is still a threat to religious minorities and is contrary to the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, according to an Asia News report on March 8.