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Persecuted pastor in Indonesia facing legal action after church attack

Country/Region: Indonesia, South and East Asia

A pastor in Indonesia is facing assault charges after his beleaguered church was attacked by a mob of Muslim extremists; a human rights group has supported him.

Indonesian churches are vulnerable to Islamist attack and official harassment
Indonesian churches are vulnerable to Islamist attack and official harassment

Police on 20 March named the Rev. Palti Panjaitan as a suspect in an assault case relating to an incident that took place when the congregation of his church in Bekasi, West Java, was attacked during a meeting.

Following the Christmas Eve attack, during which members of Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) were pelted with rotten eggs, dung and plastic bags full of urine, the pastor was attempting to leave the scene with his wife when Abdul Aziz, the leader of the mob, moved to attack him. Palti stopped the Muslim’s blow with his hand in order to protect himself and his wife.

Ironically, the extremist later claimed that Palti had assaulted him by hitting him in the chest. The pastor’s account is corroborated by the fact that although many police officers witnessed the incident, no action was taken against him at the time. Aziz had intimidated Palti on a previous occasion and also threatened to kill him.

In an open letter to the UN, Human Rights Working Group - Indonesia (HRWG) criticised the authorities’ handling of the case, saying:

[Rev. Palti Panjaitan] has been criminalised because he was defending himself from the violent attack perpetrated by an intolerant group when he held a mass prayer on 24th December in Bekasi.

The letter also accused “certain members of the state apparatus” of actively increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia.

Referring to the legal proceedings, the pastor said, “These summons have been disrupting my concentration and my leadership of HKBP Filadelfia.”

HKBP has in the past been subject both to mob violence by Islamists and to official harassment. The congregation were the victims of a similar attack in May 2012, when hundreds of Islamists tried to block them from reaching their site and showered them with sewage, water, used oil, mud, rotten eggs, sticks and other blunt objects.

The church has been meeting outside and in homes since its building was sealed off by the authorities in 2010. Despite its meeting all the conditions for a building permit, and despite a Supreme Court ruling that one should be granted, Bekasi officials are still refusing to issue the permit.

Palti’s case is the latest in a succession of charges brought against community leaders who were in fact the victims of mobs that attacked them because of their beliefs. HRWG has said that at least four have been prosecuted since 2011.

In one example, a gang of Islamic extremists attacked the Pentecostal church in Mekargalih village in West Java in January and assaulted its pastor. Instead of prosecuting the attackers, the authorities subsequently arrested the minister, Bernhard Maukar, and sentenced him to three months in prison for holding services without a valid permit. The church’s attempts to apply for a permit have all been blocked by local officials.

Other churches in Indonesia are also targeted by the authorities. GKI Yasmin Church in Bogor has been subject to an enduring campaign of official harassment. And HKBP Setu Church’s building in Bekasi was demolished on 21 March after the congregation’s applications for a permit had been repeatedly denied. During the demolition, church members looked on in tears as Muslim protestors, who called the Christians “infidels”, cheered on the workers.

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