Indonesian Mayor Defies President, Courts

For at least four years, against the orders by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian Supreme Court, the Indonesian Ombudsman and former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Diani Budiarto, the mayor of a Jakarta suburb, has been refusing to allow a Protestant group to build a church on land it owns and on which it has been given permission to erect the structure.

The GKI Yasmin Church has taken to holding its Sunday church services in front of the State Palace in an attempt to bring the matter to public attention. Other Christian churches and human rights groups have taken up the cause, regarding it as a test of secular Indonesian society against the continued rise of radical Islam in the country. Religious groups are particularly concerned over what is called a "Religious Tolerance Bill" being considered by Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, which critics say of the proposal say will actually limit religious freedom.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, told reporters the bill would legitimize existing discriminatory regulations in the 1965 Anti-Blasphemy Law as well as those in a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree limiting church freedoms. The new bill places more stringent limits on proselytizing, constructing places of worship and religious education, local media reported.

Budiarto, the mayor of the suburb of Bogor, rejected the offer of mediation by Kalla, saying the city administration doesn’t need a moderator. He told local reporters the city government had offered what it called a compromise, of relocation to what he called a “more representative location,” and that the government would buy the GKI Yasmin Church’s property and land and return the money the church had spent to acquire the permit to build the house of worship in 2006.

Kalla, who helped resolve the Aceh separatist conflict in the mid-2000s, said followers of a religion should be able to build houses of worship, be it a mosque, church, temple or other building.

“Worship houses can be built anywhere. The location or street should not be limited, and prayers can also be conducted anywhere because God is everywhere,” he said. He lamented the Bogor administration’s failure to ensure that its residents could conduct their prayers peacefully.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has become involved in the issue, as have international religious groups. Since independence, Indonesia has been governed under a loose philosophy called Pancasila, which stresses tolerance for all faiths. There is growing concern that religious intolerance has been reaching deeper and deeper in Indonesian society. Other religions and sects have become increasingly concerned about Islamic fundamentalist intolerance and outright violence as well in what has always been regarded as one of Islam’s most tolerant societies. It is believed that the radicals make up only a tiny fraction of Indonesia’s 215 million people, but they have been vocal and in some cases violent.

The GKI Yasmin Church is not the first to face trouble. Christian churches have been burned in other parts of the country and at least one more church which had been given a permit to build on its own land was refused permission to build by the Bogor government. The church accepted an offer to relocate to another area but still has not been given permission to build in the new area either.

Bona Sigalingging, a spokesman for the church, said on local television that the case “has become bigger and bigger, I think Human Rights Watch has followed this case because they see some kind of similarity with other incidents, what has happened to other minorities in Indonesia, They have followed the case closely and they see that along the years, the case is getting worse.

“The actual issue is that the congregation has a plot of land, is building a church in Bogor and since 2008 there has been a dispute with the mayor over whether that church should be built,” Sigalingging said. “Courts have ruled in our favor, the Ombudsman has ruled in our favor, but it doesn’t work. We are locked out of the grounds of the church.”

The congregation began holding its services in front of the gates to its own property, but the police kept moving them farther from the gates. On Oct. 9, church members and the police clashed in front of a sealed building on the property that the Bogor administration won’t let them use. The police and the church have both filed complaints against each other. West Java police are now investigating the complaints

The church then began meeting in a room provided by the mayor until the church decided “to get the attention of the president, to give him a message that a local government from Bogor is not only avoiding the court’s ruling but also the President himself,” Sigalingging said.

In discussions with interfaith friends, Sigalingging said, “we have one point in common, based on all the evidence, this is all relates to the growing threat of Islamization in Indonesia over the past 50 years. It is growing. This is a demonstration case. They are trying to change the ideology of Indonesia. They want to turn Indonesia into an Islamic republic….We have chosen to stand up and make our voices clear.