How to Worship without Fear in Indonesia

How to Worship without Fear in Indonesia

Improving peaceful coexistence between majority and minority religious groups in contemporary Indonesia remains an uphill challenge for the country’s commitment to religious freedom. The role of the state is crucial in nurturing this relationship.

The ongoing obstruction of the establishment of the GKI Yasmin Church in Bogor, West Java, is a recent tangible example of the challenge.

Planned since 2001, GKI Yasmin obtained a building license from the local government in 2006. However, in 2008 the mayor of Bogor annulled the permit for unspecified reasons.

The State Administrative Court ruled in 2008 that the permit’s cancellation was illegitimate, a ruling that was sustained by the High Court of Appeal in 2009 and the Supreme Court in 2010.

The mayor persisted in enforcing the revocation, thus defying the court rulings. Sadly, the local police neither took action to execute the courts’ verdicts nor sought any means of stopping mobs from intimidating the church congregation.

Until today, the church remains off-limits under the mayor’s decree and as a result the congregation has to hold Sunday services on the street.

The case of the GKI Yasmin church reveals that the adversaries of religious tolerance are not just radical religious groups, but also local authorities.

First, local governments producing policies encouraging religious discrimination in their respective jurisdictions base these policies on sectarian political interests. Second, the local police choose to follow discriminatory policies rather than enforcing religious freedom, which is enshrined in the Constitution.

These circumstances are exacerbated by the reluctance of the central government to take any measures to stop the acts of intolerance. In fact, related to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution such as religious freedom, the central government has the authority to step in to ensure all citizens can exercise their rights.

Historically, conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities, which include violent attacks, building closures and restriction on the establishment of places of worship, are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. During the New Order regime (1966-1998), as reported by the Indonesia Christian Communication Forum on Church and Human Rights in Indonesia 1998, there were at least 455 attacks on churches. The apostasy issue is the main trigger of these conflicts.

Unfortunately, as there was no effort to tackle the roots of the conflicts, these acts of violence continued in the post-1998 Reform era. Weak law enforcement contributed to Muslim-Christian conflicts, mainly in the form of attacks on churches. According to reports from the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH, 2005), the Indonesian Committee on Religion and Peace (2004), and the Indonesian Conference of Churches (KWI, 2007), at least 564 church attacks were reported between 1998 and 2007.

These conflicts are not a widespread trend in Indonesia. There is a tendency that they occur in large cities and in densely populated urban areas where there is a need to build houses of worship, which then sparks interreligious conflicts.

These conflicts also demonstrate a lack of harmony in majority-minority relations in Indonesia.

Around Jakarta, for instance, we can find many banners that express a local community’s rejection of a church construction. Danger is near if the local government responds to this kind of message with policies in favor of the protesters, as has been exemplified in the GKI Yasmin case.

On the other side, it is acknowledged that the church conflict is also related to the increase in conservatism among Indonesian Muslims, as characterized notably by the emergence of many radical Islamic organizations.

Though small in number, they have a loud voice in blocking church construction and provoking surrounding communities to support them. They become a serious threat if they use violent means and undemocratic ways to realize their aspirations.

A book titled Kontroversi Gereja di Jakarta (2001) gives some insight into church building problems. Based on 13 case studies of church construction in Greater Jakarta, one of which is GKI Yasmin, the book is a report conducted by a team from the Paramadina Foundation and some civil society organizations that promote pluralism. It explained the successes and failures of church establishments.

The research demonstrated that there are at least three important factors, called “unwritten rules”, which impact on the successful construction of churches. The first is the support of the local government and police. The second is the successful negotiation with religious elites in the surrounding area. And the last is the successful dialogue with the Muslim community in the area to avoid polemic and conflict by emphasizing that the church establishment does not hide a conversion agenda.

In the case of GKI Yasmin church, all the three factors are absent or inadequate.

Ideally, in a country where the Constitution guarantees the right of religious freedom, there should be no “unwritten rules” for minority groups to build their houses of worship. Instead, they should be able to worship without fear anywhere in Indonesia.

The writer is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) at the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. He is also an assistant to editor of the Studia Islamika Journal, which is published by the center.


Source: Jakarta Post, January 18 2012 and Hivos

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