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The congregation of Bekasi’s beleaguered HKBP Taman Sari church huddled close, forming a barrier between their church and the idling bulldozer sent to demolish their house of worship on Thursday.
They sang tearful Batak hymns in the afternoon heat, wailing between the verses, as church member Megarenta Sihite shouted at the officers from the Bekasi District Public Order Agency (Satpol PP).
“What is our sin, sir?” she screamed. “Is it a sin to pray? Show us where our mistake is. I thought this is a democratic country. Please, Mr. President, we were born here in this country with five religions. We never did anything bad to their houses of worship. Why are they doing this to us?”
The Bekasi district administration issued an order to demolish the church on Wednesday, arguing that it was built in violation of a local bylaw requiring all houses of worship to secure a building permit before construction.
Church leaders said they had gathered 89 signatures of approval from local residents needed to acquire a permit, but were derailed when the urban ward chief refused to sign the document, claiming that most of the signatures were faked.
The congregation pushed back on Thursday in an hours-long standoff between churchgoers and Satpol PP officers. The dispute peaked as pastors and an attorney from the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation presented Dikdik Astra, the Satpol PP chief, with documents claiming the demolition order had violated Indonesian law.
Dikdik dismissed the argument.
“We received orders from the district chief [Neneng Hasanah Yasin],” he said. “We only want to obey what the district chief said. Whether it is legal or not, that is her business.”
The church was demolished amid cheers of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) from members of the hard-line Taman Sari Islamic People’s Forum (FUIT) who had gathered outside the building.
Pastor Adven Leonard Nababan accused the Satpol PP of caving to pressure from hard-line groups.
Dikdik denied the allegation.
Hard-liner support, police inaction
The road leading to HKBP Taman Sari was flanked by members of local Islamic hard-line groups Thursday morning.
Men dressed in white robes flew flag bearing the names of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) as they shouted demands into megaphones a half-kilometer from the church.
“It’s not a church,” Zuhri, of the FUIT, said. “It’s an illegal building. So don’t mistake this as a religious conflict. It’s not a war between Christians and Muslims. It is not a church at all. It is just an ordinary illegal building.”
The church has held regular services in a small bamboo structure since 1999, Pastor Adven said. But as the congregation ballooned to more than 600 people, Sunday services spilled out into the church’s wooded lot.
“The church could not accommodate all of them,” Adven said.
“We were afraid that the building would collapse, so we planned to build a new building to worship comfortably.”
Their troubles began when the church broke ground on the expansion. Islamic hard-liners rallied against the construction, holding a large demonstration in January demanding that the government shutter the church.
“The opposition from the hard-line groups started on January 15 with a rally of some 750 people,” Adven said.
“After that, the process to get the building permit was not continued.”
District chief Neneng ordered the Satpol PP to close the church on March 7. The congregation was told to demolish the partially constructed building themselves.
The church refused.
Thursday’s demolition was in violation of Indonesian law, said Yunita, a lawyer with the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation.
She presented a copy of the law to Dikdik and to Adj. Comr. Sumarwoto, the Setu subprecinct police chief, arguing that the demolition order had failed to follow national protocol.
“Dismantling this building will be illegal,” she said.
“You should have letter from the district chief to dismantle the building and a long investigation process as stipulated by the law. Do you have the letter?”
Dikdik claimed he had the necessary documentation, but the letter he had was an order to seal off the building listed under the name of Markus Sihite, and not an order to dismantle the church.
“See, you have no rights to do this,” Yunita said.
“This is a church, not a building owned by Markus Sihite. If you want to knock it down, at least get the right letter.”
Sumarwoto, for his part, washed his hands of the case, telling the churchgoers that his officers were only on location to prevent a brawl between Islamic hard-liners and churchgoers.
“It’s not my business,” he said.
“It’s the Bekasi district government and Satpol PP. I am only here to secure the place and prevent a clash between residents and church members.”
A community pulls together
The HKBP Taman Sari congregation is the latest Christian group in West Java to face opposition from locals over their presence in largely Muslim communities.
The GKI Yasmin congregation in Bogor has been locked out of its church since 2008 by the municipal authorities, in direct violation of two Supreme Court rulings and an order by the Indonesian Ombudsman to allow it back in.
Bogor officials’ initial pretext for revoking the church’s permit was that the signatures required to obtain it were fake. It now says that its refusal to abide by the rulings of the highest court in the land is based on residents’ opposition to the church.
The HKBP Filadelfia congregation is the victim of a similar injustice. Since 2007, its members have been forced to worship on the street outside the church in Bekasi as district authorities continue to deny the church a permit.
The Home Affairs Ministry, which exercises authority over regional heads, has repeatedly claimed that regional autonomy renders the central government powerless to force the Bogor and Bekasi administrations to comply with the Supreme Court rulings.
The two congregations now hold joint services every Sunday on the street outside the State Palace in Jakarta, to draw the president’s attention to their plight.
Back at the site of the HKBP Taman Sari church, two young girls wept as the dust began to settle on the collapsed walls.
“Why are they so mean?” one girl cried. “Why did they have to demolish it? Where will we go for Sunday school?”
Women wailed and collapsed in fits while a single woman stood atop a pile of rubble, collecting bricks one by one to reset the Indonesian flag. She placed a tin sign bearing the church’s name alongside the Merah Putih before walking off.
Adven, the church’s pastor, addressed the crowd.
“Don’t cry,” he told them. “Your tears will turn to victory. Remember, this is a test of your faith.”
Adven said he would continue leading the congregation members in worship at the same location, because of the lack of nearby churches. The nearest HKBP church is 15 kilometers away, in Jakarta.
“We will still keep worshiping in this place,” he said. “It has been two weeks that we’ve held services outside the church after they sealed off the building.”
“Time flies, and soon we’ll celebrate Good Friday,” said Markus Simamora, a member of the congregation. “No matter how many times they demolish the church, we’ll rebuild it.”
Adven led the congregation in a prayer thanking Satpol PP and the Islamic hard-liners for their actions.
“Satpol PP officers and members of the Islamic group, we thank you for what you have done. May God bless you abundantly,” he said.
“Amen,” the crowd responded.
Nia Pandiangan, a congregation member, accused the central and local governments of being unable to protect their right to worship.
“But we won’t hate them,” she said. “As children of God, we were told to love, not to hate. So we’ll pray that God will soften their hearts.”