Christians Refuse to Allow Officials to Close Church in Indonesia

Bekasi, Indonesia - Efforts by local officials in this city in West Java to close a church met with stiff resistance this month, as a defiant lawyer and weeping women refused to allow it.

Women of the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) cried in protest as officials from the Bekasi Building Department on March 1 placed a brown signboard of closure on the church building in Pondok Timur, Bekasi, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Jakarta.

The seal stayed in place for about two minutes before some of the shrieking women tore it down. The sign was trampled as furious church members stampeded over it, shouting and screaming. Bekasi city officials turned and ran as the congregation fanned out.

The defiance followed a heated debate within the same church building minutes before, as the Christians had invited the Bekasi officials inside to discuss the matter when they arrived to seal the building. The discussion soon became heated as a city official asserted that the church did not have a building permit.

The church had applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials had yet to act on it, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak.

At the meeting inside the church building, attorney Refer Harianya said that the sealing process was illegal, as it requires that public notice be given.

“HKBP has never seen nor received the formal order and has not acknowledged such an order by signing a receipt,” Harianya said. “In addition, public notice must be given in the form of formal reading of the order.”

Harianya added that the legal basis for sealing the church was weak. The Joint Ministerial Decree revised in 2006 clearly states in Paragraph 21 that when there is a problem with the building of a house of worship, it must be solved through formal consultation with local residents, he said.

“At this stage, resolution has not taken place,” he said.

Harianya said that in case such a consultation failed to resolve conflicts, then the mayor may consult with the Department of Religion – “in a just and non-prejudicial manner” – taking into account suggestions from the Interfaith Harmony Forum.

“On this point, up to March 1, the church has never been invited to talk with the mayor,” he said.

The Joint Ministerial Decree had not been correctly applied in the sealing of the church, Harianya concluded, adding that contested cases could always be taken to court.

“We still have some legal avenues open,” he said. “This is not the time for a surprise sealing.”

Harianya also cited Mayor Decree No. 16 (2006) regarding the construction of a house of worship in Bekasi City, where Article 11 states that before a building is sealed there must be three written notices given. This process also had not been carried out, he said.

“Because you have not followed the procedures which I have outlined, we will act as if the sealing never took place,” Harianya told city officials as members of the congregation cheered.

The sealing of the church would thus be illegal, so the government had broken the law, he said. Harianya said that HKBP members would not hinder officials from carrying out their duties, but that they would be named in a lawsuit.

One of the officials, identified only as Pemana, responded, “Go ahead and sue.”

“If the seal is in place,” Harianya said, “We can break it because the act of sealing is illegal. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” answered the 75 parishioners present.

With the meeting ending in a deadlock, city officials prepared to place the signboard to seal the church, with the ensuing tumult.

Mayor Fails to Show

Prior to the showdown, at 10 a.m. Pastor Simanjuntak, the Rev. Pieterson Purba and Harianya had a scheduled a meeting with Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohamad – promised by an official named H. Junaedi during a demonstration on Feb. 28 – only to discover that the visit had not been placed on the mayor’s schedule.

As they waited, Pastor Simanjuntak received a mobile phone call saying that city building officials were at the church site and had been there since 9 a.m.

The following day, March 2, the HKBP leaders and leaders from three other churches were able to meet the mayor, who promised to help them find new places of worship. While they waited for the new sites, the mayor suggested, the HKBP church could use a multipurpose room belonging to the Social Department starting March 7.

Subsequently, Pastor Simanjuntak and members of the congregation rejected the proposal, reasoning that moving somewhere else was equivalent to being ejected from their building.

Worship resumed as usual at 7 a.m. on Sunday, March 7, under the strict watch of police and soldiers who had stood guard all night. The service finished two hours later without incident.

“Because this was a congregational decision, from next Sunday onwards we will be holding services in the house of worship here at No. 14 Puyuh Raya Street,” said Pastor Simanjuntak.