Religious Conflict in Jakarta

Imagine that you've moved to Jakarta from your birthplace outside Java. This happened some 20 years ago and you're now married with a family.You've settled in Bekasi, a suburb outside the capital. Property prices there are more affordable than in the city center. The houses are small but sufficient. In fact, some of them have been converted into shops and kiosks.

Meanwhile, Bekasi with an estimated population of over 2.2 million, has grown by leaps and bounds.

There are now new shopping malls with everything you could ever want: from cinemas and restaurants to supermarkets.

Still, the development is haphazard.

With so many people streaming in to what was essentially a "dormitory" town, there's little sense of shared identity.

Moreover, the commute to Jakarta for work is exhausting.

You have to wake up long before dawn, only returning home after sunset.

After hours on the road, who has time for neighborliness? Some courtesies go missing.

Amidst all the changes and being far from your birthplace, you begin to realize the importance of "belonging."

On Sundays, your people — friends and family from the same community — gather together for prayers.

Many of you now live in the same housing development.

Initially, you moved the prayers from house to house so as to minimize the inconvenience.

But as the congregation grew — there are more than 1,500 "souls" now — the moving around became too impractical.

In fact, some of the children of this growing congregation are now in their 20s and are starting families of their own.

Having grown up in a disciplined and highly religious environment, you begin to wonder what the future holds for them and their offspring.

What kind of identity will they have, surrounded by people of other religions?

In such a restless environment the church becomes an important bastion: a source of guidance and solace.

You talk about your birthplace — perhaps it's Tapanuli in North Sumatra — but it's difficult for your children to imagine the place.

It's too far away and they've only known the hot plains of West Java. Still, you try — using the Batak language at home and in religious services.

Indeed, as you grow older you feel more strongly attached to the community and to the weekly religious services. It is an important part of your life. It grounds you.

But this is where the story unravels.

This is where the secular promise of Indonesia comes under pressure from the realities of communities in potential conflict on the ground.

Over the past two decades, your requests to municipal authorities for land to build a permanent church have been held up by endless bureaucratic delays and at times downright bigotry.

Every time you try something different — temporarily converting a house or buying a property, it's quickly blocked.

Indeed, even continuing the services in a semi-permanent venue is disallowed.

The problems are dispiriting, but you don't lose hope. Finally, you resolve to pray on a piece of land the church actually owns.

There's no protection from the elements but at least the land is yours.

However, on Aug. 8, five days ago, after five weeks of praying in the open, you are prevented from holding Sunday morning prayers.

Even though there are police present, they do nothing. Instead, an angry crowd intimidates your fellow worshippers. They push and they shove.

Some fall to the ground. The pastor is actually beaten. It is a humiliating and scary experience.

You return to your respective homes. In the days that follow, there is a media outcry.

Religious leaders from all faiths visit your community. Politicians intervene. The governor speaks up; even the president specifically refers to the incident in a speech.

The coverage is comforting; it makes you realize you are not alone.

But there's a depressing familiarity about the difficulties you've faced in finding a permanent home for your church.

It's a narrative that's been duplicated across Jakarta's suburbs — from Depok to Tangerang to Bekasi.

Thursday evening comes, and you meet a visiting writer from Malaysia. He's a Muslim and it's the eve of Ramadan.

He knows he's imposing as he sits down (in what was the temporary church) to talk with you and your friends. You tell your story. He listens and takes notes.

Finally he asks: "What will you do on Sunday?"

Without hesitation you answer: "We'll go out to pray on our land."

The writer takes his leave and returns to Jakarta. He's humbled by your courage and determination.

He's also enraged by how intolerant members of his own faith can be.

Still, it's Ramadan and he hopes that people change.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia. This piece originally appeared in the Jakarta Globe.