Indonesia Megachurch Forced to Halt Activities to Prevent 'Social Tensions'

Local authorities in Indonesia are blocking a Catholic priest from celebrating mass in a bid to avoid "social tensions" after a group of Muslims challenged the legal status of his 4,000-member megachurch.

Last week, local Catholic leaders met officials from the West Jakarta District and the Tambura Sub-district, who insisted on canceling the activities of Christ's Peace Church in South Duri, West Jakarta.

Father Matthew Widyalestari told the Catholic news agency AsiaNews that the reason given by the officials was for "public order" and fear of sectarian clashes.

Although he signed an agreement that forced him to end all activities at the church, the priest still expressed his desire to celebrate Sunday mass for his 4,000 parishioners.

"The faithful want their spiritual needs fulfilled," Widyalestari said. "They feel like they are on a most wanted list, forced underground to find another place to practice their religion."

Christ's Peace Parish has used the same building since 1968, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that the Cooperation Forum for Mosque, Prayer Rooms (Musholla) and the Koranic Recital Group (Majlis Taklim) of the Duri Selatan subdistrict challenged the legal status of the church, saying that they do not have the correct permits needed for places of worship.

"Technically it is difficult to find the right place," Father Lestari, another priest, pointed out to AsiaNew. "Some parishioners go to mass at the Provincial House of the Missionary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but that place is not big enough for thousands of people."

The Interior and Religious Affairs Ministries issued a joint decree in 2005 that was meant to end violence against "illegal churches" and also make it easier to get building permits.

Despite the decree, attacks have not stopped, and Christians often are not protected and are at risk of having to cease the public practice of their faith.