Indonesian city officials allegedly oppose church construction in Banten

Dandy Koswaraputra
Indonesian city officials allegedly oppose church construction in Banten A police officer guards a church ahead of Christmas mass, in Jakarta, Dec. 24, 2020.
[Hafidz Mubarak A/Antara Foto/via Reuters]

The Indonesian government is investigating reports that top officials in a city near Jakarta had signed a declaration opposing the construction of churches in their jurisdiction, an official said Friday.

On the same day, an umbrella organization for Protestant churches in Indonesia called the opposition to church building “politicization of identity,” and warned that it “threatened diversity” in the Muslim-majority country that has 25 million Christians.

A video circulating online appears to show the mayor and deputy mayor of Cilegon, a city in Banten province, signing a banner brought by local Muslim protesters who objected to construction of churches there. 

“We want to know what really happened,” said Mualimin Abdi, director general of human rights at the Law and Human Rights Ministry.

“I have asked the local office of the ministry to find out,” he told BenarNews.

On Wednesday, a group calling itself the Local Wisdom Rescue Committee of Cilegon City rallied in front of town hall and asked Mayor Helldy Agustian and his deputy Sanuji Pentamarta to sign their petition, TVOne reported.

In the video, it appears that Helldy and Sanuji signed the petition.

BenarNews could not immediately reach either of them for comment, but Helldy told local media that he was listening to the voice of the local communities.

“What I did was to fulfil the wish of the communities in Cilegon City, including religious leaders, community leaders, youth leaders and other organizations,” CNN Indonesia quoted him as saying.

‘Politicization of identity’

The Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), an umbrella organization for Protestant churches, condemned the episode.

“This incident proves that the politicization of identity is increasingly worrying and is threatening the fabric of diversity which we must be grateful for as God’s gift to this nation,” PGI spokesman Jeirry Sumampow said in a statement on Friday.

He said the Indonesian constitution guaranteed the right for all citizens to practice their religion.

Jeirry also urged Christians to act with compassion in response to intolerance.

“We must never tire of seeking dialogue and cooperation as a dignified way to manage differences and promote national harmony,” he said.

There are no churches in Cilegon, which is located about 100 kilometers west of Jakarta. Christians here have to drive 45 minutes to the neighboring city of Serang to attend services. 

Human rights groups have cited opposition to church construction as an example of growing intolerance in Indonesia, home to about 270 million people, 11 percent of whom are Christian.

For instance, Christians in Bogor, a city just south of Jakarta, have for years sought to have their church reopened after authorities shuttered it in 2008 because locals opposed it.

Indonesian Christian Pastor Torang Simanjuntak delivers an Easter Sunday mass next to the ruins of the Taman Sari Batak Christian Protestant Church in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta, 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. [Adek Berry/AFP]


Alissa Wahid, a member of the Religious Moderation Working Group at the Religious Affairs Ministry, criticized officials who capitulate to intolerant groups “who see other groups as enemies and nuisances.”

“These things often happen under the pretext of communal unity and social harmony,” Alissa told BenarNews.

Human rights groups have blamed a 2006 joint ministerial degree for growing intolerance in Southeast Asia’s most populous country.

Under the decree, the construction of houses of worship must meet several requirements, including the signatures and identification of at least 90 worshipers, the signed approval of at least 60 members of the local community and a written government recommendation.

Rights activists had said the decree was passed due to some Muslims’ concern about alleged Christian missionary activities and what they perceived as a growing number of churches in Muslim areas.

Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas defended the decree in an interview with BenarNews last year, saying that while it may need some amendments, it was necessary to maintain communal harmony in a religiously diverse nation like Indonesia.

The ministry’s head of the Center for Religious Harmony, Wawan Djunaedi, urged local leaders to respect constitutional rights of all citizens.

“There is no reason whatsoever for regional heads not to facilitate the construction of houses of worship when the number of potential users has reached 90 people,” Wawan said on the ministry’s website on Thursday.

Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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