The Building Permit Problem that Curses Indonesian Churches

By ICC’s Indonesia Correspondent

03/20/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)Religious activities in Indonesia receive an apparent constitutional guarantee. Written in the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia Chapter 29 verse 2, “The state guarantees the freedom of each citizen to embrace their respective religions and for religious worship according to their religion and belief.”

The reality, however, is contrary to what has been guaranteed and even adds to the long list of intolerant actions against religious minorities in Indonesia. It is evident as two churches across the country became the latest victims of radical Muslim groups.

Local groups have been fervent in rejecting the renovation of the St. Joseph Catholic Church, in Tanjung Balai Karimun, Riau Islands. They call themselves the United Muslim Community Forum (FUIB) and the Karimun Care Action (APK). They have been obstructing the renovation, despite the fact that the church has fulfilled what was needed legally to move forward.

In 2012, the management of the Catholic Church of St. Joseph applied for a building permit (IMB) to renovate the church which was built on May 18, 1935. The Regional Government of Karimun District finally issued an IMB in October 2019, and a construction committee was formed to renovate the church.

Yet, for various reasons, these groups sought a way to reject the renovation of the church building. The reasons range from potential congestion in the surrounding streets during construction to restrictions noting that the church building could not exceed the height of the official residence of the regent. They also requested that the church not showcase symbols of Christianity in front of the church.

In reality, the church meets all of the demands. In the construction plan, the building height is only 11.75 meters, while the official residence of the regent is 12 meters. The church also agrees not to display symbols of Christianity in front of the church. But that was not enough to stop the groups from making it an issue to reject the church renovations. By taking legal action, they hope that the IMB that had been issued by the Karimun district government could be canceled. As a result, the renovation process was halted, pending the court’s decision.

But this was not the end. One of the committee members for the construction of the church building, Romesko Purba, reportedly received a call from the police on charges of expressing hatred and contempt toward Muslims. In addition, they also demanded that the renovation could not be done to the original building, for the purpose of “preserving cultural heritage.” As an alternative, they proposed that the location of the new church be moved elsewhere.

The Pentecostal Church in Indonesia (GPdI), Immanuel Sedayu, Bantul, Yogyakarta shares the same fate. The regent revoked the IMB thanks to local residents’ insistence. The church, in turn, took the matter to court. In the end, the church agreed to a proposal to move the location of the church building elsewhere, with the local government agreeing to assist in facilitating the process of obtaining the IMB.

Erecting a church building in a new location is not easy for GPdI Immanuel. The church still faces obstacles in the process of licensing the construction, since local residents are still against them. Even still, the church has not seen much progress.

The concept of obtaining an IMB for religious places in Indonesia should not be merely understood as a legal authorization to begin land development. This requirement dates back to a Joint Decision made by two Ministers, the Minister of Religion and the Minister of Home Affairs No. 8 and 9 of 2006, better known as SKB 2 Minister. In one of its clauses, it mentions that the establishment of places of worship must have a congregation of 90 people and gain the support of 60 local residents in the form of signatures.

In areas where the overwhelming majority is Muslim, there are even more rigorous regional regulations for churches to obtain the IMB. In Aceh, a 2007 Islamic decree stated that there must be at least 150 congregants of places of worship and 120 from surrounding communities showing support for an IMB to be issued.  In 2016, while the rule reduced the requirement to 140 users of places of worship and 110 supporters from local community, the church must also obtain the approval of Keuchik (village head) and Imuem Mukim (head of customary government).

For a Muslim-majority country, it is never easy, if not impossible, for a church to obtain the necessary signatures needed to put in such an application for IMB. Indonesia also noticeably has a double-standard when it comes to how much the rule applies to Muslims or mosques.

In Yogyakarta, a group called the Islamic Jihad Front (FJI) protested the gathering of a church in Hartono Mall. They cannot accept that there is a place of worship for Christians inside the mall, even though Muslims often hold Friday prayers at the same location.

North Sulawesi Province is one of the few provinces in Indonesia whose population is Christian-majority. In the village of Tumaluntung, the meeting hall of a Muslim community was recently destroyed by the local residents because the meeting hall was used by Muslims as a place of worship or a small mosque (Musholah).

Local residents requested that Muslims obey the existing rules by obtaining an IMB before using the hall as a place of worship, especially since a deadline was given by the village chief for these Muslims to take care of licensing, but was ignored. The anger of the local community arose, and the destruction of the meeting hall ensued.

The situation in Tumaluntung immediately received a swift response from the local government. The police moved quickly and arrested those who destroyed the meeting hall; the Ministry of Religion gave orders to the local regent to immediately issue an IMB to grant the meeting hall as a place of worship for Muslims, resulting in the fastest issuance of IMB ever, which took only one day. The churches in Indonesia never enjoy such a privilege.

In Muslim-majority places such as Karimun, Yogyakarta, and Aceh, it is very cumbersome to build church buildings due to the IMB curse. Even those that already have an IMB risk having their permit revoked.

The preservation of religious diversity in Indonesia should be realized by every citizen of the nation, in accordance with their teachings of the religions, respecting the beliefs of others, and they must also show tolerance towards the practice of worship adhered to by people of other faiths.

Christians in Indonesia really hope for justice where they are free from being discriminated against by the enforcers of the Constitution. As for the radical groups that are projecting religious intolerance in Indonesia, there must be serious actions taken by government officials to stop any of their activities.

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