Pastors Protest Closures as Gov’t Shutters Bekasi Church

Indonesian Christian Pastor Torang Simanjuntak (L) delivers an Easter Sunday mass next to the ruins of the HLBP Taman Sari church in Bekasi on March 31, 2013, as minority Christians mark Easter amid rising cases of religious intolerance.  On March 21 the local government demolished the half constructed church in front of its weeping congregation.  Indonesia's 240 million people identify themselves as Muslim but the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. (AFP Photo/Adek Berry)

Indonesian Christian Pastor Torang Simanjuntak (L) delivers an Easter Sunday mass next to the ruins of the HLBP Taman Sari church in Bekasi on March 31, 2013, as minority Christians mark Easter amid rising cases of religious intolerance. On March 21 the local government demolished the half constructed church in front of its weeping congregation. Indonesia’s 240 million people identify themselves as Muslim but the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. (AFP Photo/Adek Berry)

Bekasi city administration sealed the GKI Gembrong church last week in what human rights activists are calling the latest example of the government’s inability to protect religious minorities in Indonesia.

The Protestant church was closed by the Pondok Gede subdistrict chief after local hard-liners protested outside the house of worship on March 24, demanding its closure. The order comes in the wake of the demolition of the HKBP Taman Sari church following similar protests in nearby Bekasi District.

“It’s the same old reason, they don’t have a building permit” Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of human rights organization Setara Institute, said of GKI Gembrong. “They built the church in 1994, before the government issued a joint ministerial regulation on house of worship building permits.”

The GKI Gembrong church was warned not to hold Good Friday or Easter services outside the shuttered building by subdistrict chief Chaerul Anwar. The 300-member congregation packed in for holiday services at a nearby GKI church, church elder Marihot Samosir said.

Bonar called the closure another example of rising religious intolerance in Indonesia.

“Local governments support the intolerance in Bekasi by sacrificing the victims of religious intolerance and supporting the demands of intolerant groups,” Bonar said.

In nearby Bekasi District, a coalition of 30 pastors representing the district’s beleaguered Christian community pushed back against the local administration on Monday. The pastors said they will meet with Bekasi District Head Neneng Hasanah Yasin to discuss the forced closure or demolition of churches by the local Public Order Agency (Satpol PP Bekasi).

At least five churches have been sealed by the Satpol PP since 2005, Erwin Marbun, pastor of HKBP Kayu Tinggi, told the Jakarta Globe. Three of those churches, including HKBP Taman Sari, have been demolished by the government agency.

HKBP Taman Sari was demolished on March 21 amid vocal protests from the area’s hard-line Islamists. Neneng allegedly ordered the destruction, arguing that the church had failed to acquire the necessary permits.

The coalition of pastors now want to question Neneng over the order.

“We want to convey our concern and ask her some questions related to the closure and demolition of HKBP Taman Sari in Setu Bekasi,” Erwin said.

The pastors argue that local bylaws, which mandate all houses of worship acquire a permit before opening, stack the odds against Christian organizations. And Satpol PP, Erwin argued, repeatedly ignored pleas that the churches were in the process of gathering the necessary signatures.

“We want to open a house of worship,” Erwin said. “To open a cafe or a massage parlor won’t make such uproar and it won’t take as long for them to obtain a building permit.”

HKBP Taman Sari pastor Adven Leonard Nababan accused Neneng of cowing to pressure from hard-line groups. The pastor’s church was demolished amid cheers of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”) from members of numerous hard-line organizations.

“She should be legally responsible,” Adven said. “The district chief should not make a decision based on certain mass organization’s intervention.”

HKBP Taman Sari’s troubles began after the militant Islamic People’s Forum (FUIT) mobilized against the church, claiming it lacked the needed permits. The local administration agreed and demolished the building before a weeping crowd of churchgoers.

The church, which operated out of a small bamboo structure in Bekasi Setu for more than a decade, was in the process of obtaining a building permit to expand, Adven said. They had gathered the necessary signatures, but the process was derailed by the village chief’s assertion that many of the names were faked.

Local hard-liners argue that the building was never a church in the first place. They told the Jakarta Globe that the church was nothing more than an illegal structure.

The Bekasi District government issued an order to demolish the church a week after the protest.

The congregation held Easter service in pews set up outside the demolished structure. The church plans to continue holding outdoor services at their wooded lot.