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Behind Church Closures, the Specter of Intolerance

ICC Note:

Religious intolerance against Christian churches is on rise in Indonesia. Under the pressure of Islamic hardliners, churches are being shut down by local authorities at an average of 40 churches per year. The local law makes it extremely difficult to gain the permit to establish a Christian worship building and local authorities. According to the article, some rights activists argued that several requirements “make it nearly impossible to set up anything other than a mosque.”

06/05/2014 Indonesia (Jakarta Globe)- Church officials in Cianjur, West Java, have reported local authorities to the national human rights commission for forcing shut seven churches there, the latest targets of a controversial government decree on how houses of worship may be set up.

“We are reporting the Cianjur district administration to Komnas HAM [the National Commission for Human Rights] over their forceful closure of seven churches in Cianjur,” Oferlin Hia, the chairman of the Association of Churches in Cianjur, said on Monday.

“We just want to demand the protection of our rights as citizens,” he added. “Clearly, the state has neglected our right to worship freely.”

The affected churches are the Indonesian Pentecostal Church of Cianjur (GPdI); the Pentecostal Movement Church; the New Covenant Christian Church; the Bethlehem Pentecostal Movement Church; the Indonesia Bethel Church (GBI); the Full Gospel International Church; and the Assemblies of God Church (GSJA).

Oferlin said the district authorities’ decision to close down the churches on the pretext of permit violations was regrettable, noting that the churches played a central role in the lives of the Christian communities in Cianjur.

He said some of the churches had been around since 1977, predating a 2006 decree from the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Home Affairs Ministry that dictates the conditions for establishing a house of worship.

The ministries, citing the need for houses of worship not to be a source of friction in the communities in which they are based, laid out several requirements that rights activists and religious freedom advocates argue make it nearly impossible to set up anything other than a mosque.

The conditions include getting the signed approval for the new building from 60 local households of different faiths; approval from the municipal or district religious affairs office and the ward and subdistrict heads; and a recommendation from the local Interfaith Communication Forum, or FKUB — which in many cases comprises hard-line Islamic groups that tend to be against the setting up of churches in their communities.

Making life difficult

While the decree ostensibly applies only to new houses of worship, local authorities, particularly in West Java, have forced long-existing churches there to comply, often under pressure from Muslim hard-liners.

“Many churches have been around since before the issuance of the decree,” says Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the deputy director of the Setara Institute, which advocates for religious tolerance and pluralism. “So now when they try to get a permit, they find it very difficult. For instance, in Jember [in East Java] alone there are currently 85 churches that are operating without permits.”

Bonar calls the process to obtain a permit — which for churches that predate the 2006 decree is needed in the event of renovations to the building structure or expansion — “onerous and long-drawn-out.”

He adds that local authorities are often partial and under pressure from hard-line groups, thus less willing to issue permits to Christian congregations.

“Most of the time, getting the urban ward chief’s approval is the hardest part,” he says. “There are elements of fear and intimidation as well. Often, local authorities come under pressure from intolerant groups actively trying to seek out churches that do not have permits. They often come to the offices of ward chiefs and subdistrict heads saying ‘Are you a Muslim or not? If yes, you have to support us.’

“Many of the local authorities are not willing to risk their ire,” Bonar says.

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