Another Church Faces Closure Amid Hard-Line Protest in West Java

By : Jakarta Globe | on 8:15 PM March 20, 2014
Category : News, Human Rights, Religion

Jakarta. A West Java court threw out a Bekasi government-issued building permit for a Catholic church on Thursday, ruling that the church congregation failed to openly advertise the long-planned construction in the latest instance of a public institution cowing to pressure from hard-line Islamists in this Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) stronghold.

"The church considers it invalid because the church only informed people door to door, not openly," said attorney Uli Parulian Sihombing, who represented the Stanislaus Kostka Catholic church.

The congregation began the lengthy process of securing a building permit in 2005 to construct a church for the nearly 500 Catholic families living in the immediate area. The church members walked the streets of Kranggan, Bekasi, gathering the 60 signatures needed from local residents before submitting the paperwork to the Bekasi district government. The signatures were reportedly verified by the local urban ward office.

The congregation received the support of the Interfaith Harmony Forum (FKUB) and the local branch of the Ministry of Religious Affairs as it prepared the necessary documents. By November of 2012, the local administration issued the building permit, giving the congregation the green light to begin construction.

Some five months later, the congregation broke ground in a ceremony that was attended by Bekasi District Mayor Rahmat Effendi. The work continued for several months until the local Islamic Peoples Forum (FUI) — a hard-line group that routinely campaigns against non-Sunni Muslim houses of worship in West Java — mounted a protest against the Catholic church.

The paperwork, the hard-line Islamists argued, was invalid because the signatures were allegedly fake. The group urged the local administration to renege on the building permit, staging noisy protests outside the building's gates with the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) – an organization implicated in violent attacks on houses of worship and people engaged in activities deemed haram by the hard-liners.

Some Islamist groups have enveloped themselves in a war of attrition on the institutions of religious minorities in West Java, rampaging through offending mosques and holding unruly protests with the tacit support of West Java Governor Ahmad Heraywan's administration. The most successful tool in the hard-liner's arsenal, a government regulation requiring all religious institutions obtain a building permit before construction, has been used to shutter dozens of churches in Indonesia despite reports highlighting that mosques broke that rule more frequently than the country's churches.

The Bandung Administrative Court ruled in the FUI's favor in this most recent case, revoking the Catholic church's building permit on the grounds that the congregation had failed to adequately advertise their planned construction project. The attorney for Stanislaus Kostka accused the court of siding with the hard-liner group, explaining that the Catholic community was open about their intentions to build a church. There is no regulation in Indonesia requiring additional steps beyond the initial 60 signatures for a building permit, Uli said.

"Even the urban ward [chief] informed the residents about the church construction," he said. "The judge's opinion is strange. I guess they just made it to please the plaintiffs."

The court, in its ruling, said the church had not faked any of the signatures submitted to the local administration. Furthermore, four residents who came forward in support of the FUI, saying that their signatures had been forged by church officials, had all lied, the court ruled. One judge, Nelvy Christin, ruled in favor of the Catholic church, deciding that the congregation had fulfilled all the necessary requirements. But in the end, the administrative court declared the building permit invalid. 

The ruling, Uli said, has left the church community scratching their heads. It is unknown if construction of the building should stop, or how the Catholic church could meet the new mandate of openly advertising the project.

"So, again, the decision only stated that the decision to issue the permit was invalid," Uli said. "It did not say whether the permit was revoked or whether the construction should be terminated.

"What is even more strange is that the ruling could not be implemented, as all of the judges rejected the request of the plaintiff to suspend the church's construction. It's a confusing decision."

The church plans to appeal the case to a higher court.

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