More Church Closures in West Java Intensify Christian-Muslim Tensions

Two more Christian churches in Indonesia’s West Java province, with a combined congregation of 500 members, were forced to close down last Sunday under the threat of extremists, according to recent reports.

Sept. 13 – Two more Christian churches in Indonesia’s West Java province, with a combined congregation of 500 members, were forced to close down last Sunday under the threat of extremists, according to recent reports.

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) and Gekindo churches were two of many churches around the country that have been forced to close due to the increasing pressure by the Muslim extremist group. According to the Jakarta Post, the recent closures have resulted in intensified tension between Christians and Muslims.

In a report published Tuesday, the Jakarta Post reported that members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were allegedly blockading the two Christian churches located at the Jati Mulya housing complex in Bekasi, West Java, since last Saturday, forcing 500 members from the two churches to conduct Sunday services in the street.

The Islamic militants claim that the churches are illegal, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio reported Monday.

Some church leaders in the region, however, argued against the persecution, saying some communities have been forced to conduct services in houses and shops, without the proper permits because the local Muslim communities have opposed the construction of new churches, according to the ABC Radio.

Under the joint ministerial decree signed in 1969 by then-Indonesian religious minister Mohammad Dahlan and home minister Amir Machmud, religious groups must have permission from local communities as well as the government before building places of worship.

Jakarta Police spokesman, Sr. Comr. Tjiptono, also noted that the church had for years requested for permits to build its building, but to no avail.

“If they [Islamic militants] thought the churches should not have been there then they should have done something in the first place,” said Tjiptono, when speaking to the Jakarta Post. “Now they have to decide whether to issue permits or not, as both churches have been requesting for years without answer."

Tjiptono noted the fact that both churches had been operating in the area for 15 years.

Richard Daulay, the secretary general of the Indonesian Communion of Churches, condemned the religious law in Indonesia as biased against Christians and other minorities, according to ABC Radio.

"So many churches, so many requests, the government, who are mostly Muslim leaders don't understand that the typical Protestant church tends to be divided, so they think so many requests means the church is expanding but it's not true," he said.

Currently, talks aimed at peacefully resolving the dispute have been held between Christian and Muslim leaders in the region since Sunday, according to the Jakarta Post. Several police officers and officials from the Bekasi administration have also present.

During the talks, Christians requested to have the churches reopened.

"We want the blockades to be removed,” said the former chairman of the Indonesia Communion of Churches (PGI), Nathan Setiabudi, to the Jakarta Post. “If they do not want to do that, then find us a place where we can hold services. We will accept any solution as long as we get places of worship."

However, despite the effort of the religious leaders to try to reach an agreement by Monday evening, the talks were still underway without indicating a closing deadline.

Tjiptono told the Jakarta Post the police were reviewing whether the closures were legal. He urged the Bekasi administration to quickly make a final decision on whether to allow the churches to reopen or to close them to avoid confusion and conflict.

"We are still examining whether we can remove the blockades," he said. “We can forcibly remove the blockades if we are sure that there is enough evidence that the blockaders are illegal.”

According to reports several cities in West Java have been under the threat of Islamic extremists including the FPI and the Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance. The number of church closures in West Java was reported to top 30 over the last year.

Last week, the U.K.-based human rights watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) warned of the accelerating trend of Christian church closures in predominately Muslim West Java, raising a nationwide concern.

The recent disturbance on Sunday just came exactly one week after the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged his government’s commitment to protect the religious freedom of all citizens. He also called on the community to help prevent violence against any faith.

In its report, the Jakarta Post noted that no clashes occurred on Sunday during services as about 100 police officers were deployed to the neighborhood.