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Islamists block persecuted Indonesian church from holding service

Country/Region: Indonesia, South and East Asia

Another Indonesian church whose building has been unlawfully sealed off by the authorities was met with violent opposition from Islamists as it attempted to stage an outdoor service.

The Filadelfia congregation of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) in Bekasi has been unable to use the building on the land it bought in 2007. The Christians worshipped in a semi-permanent building while waiting for a permit from the Bekasi government. Despite their meeting all the requirements for one, a permit was not issued, and on 31 December 2009, the church was banned from using the site; the building was sealed off the following month.

Indonesian-Supreme-Court-4X3.jpg
The Indonesian Supreme Court
has ruled in favour of the church

HKBP took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favour. Its decision is however, yet to be implemented.

Last Sunday (15 April), the congregation was met with violent opposition as they tried to hold a service on the street in front of their sealed-off church building. Muslim residents blocked them from the site, and the local authorities had to intervene.

Overwhelmed by the mob, officials told the Christians to hold their service at the local sub-district office – around five kilometres away – but they refused. As they persisted with the service, it was disrupted by the Muslim opponents, who played loud music and rode a motorcycle through the congregation.

Church leader, the Rev. Palti Panjaitan, insisted it was the church’s right to use the building. He was threatened by one of the mob, who shouted, “Palti Panjaitan, you’re dead if you try coming back!”

HKBP’s battle with the authorities and local Muslims has many parallels with the plight of GKI Yasmin Church, whose building in Bogor, West Java, has been illegally sealed off by the authorities, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling that it should re-open.

More than 200 Christians from the two churches, along with human rights activists and political representatives, staged a peaceful demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on 15 April. They decried the expropriation of places of worship and called for religious freedom to be upheld, denouncing violations by Islamist groups and the failure of the authorities, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to implement the law.

Activists said that the president was afraid of “alienating” the Islamic fringe in case he lost support and votes.

GKI, which has been holding services on the street in front of its church building since 2008, has now been forced to meet in secret for the safety of the congregation.

Church spokesman Bona Sigalingging said:

We are constantly having to change our location because our existence appears to be unwanted, and we have to hide so that we are not intimidated by intolerant groups… We had hoped for help from the police, but after many attacks on members of the congregation, we see that the police are also involved in this.

In a visit to Indonesia earlier this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron praised the country as an example of religious tolerance. He said:

What Indonesia shows is that in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, it is possible to reject this extremist threat and prove that democracy and Islam can flourish alongside each other.

While it is true that there is greater religious freedom in Indonesia than some Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, the ongoing persecution of HKBP and GKI demonstrate that Indonesia still has a long way to go in the treatment of its Christian minorities.

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