Muslims in Bekasi, Indonesia Oppose Another Church Building

Islamists decry ‘center of Christianization’ in West Java, where anti-Christian hostilities fester.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 13 (CDN) — Islamic organizations have mounted a campaign against the planned construction of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in West Java Province, where Christian leaders report 20 other churches have faced Muslim hostility since 2009.  

Muslim leaders said plans for the Mother Teresa church in the Lippo Cikarang property project in the Cikarang area will make it the largest church building in Bekasi City. Adang Permana, general chairman of the Bekasi Islamic Youth Movement, said Bekasi area Muslims oppose the church building because they fear it will become “a center of Christianization,” according to the Islamic website

“This church will become the center of apostasy and clearly disturb the faith of Bekasi citizens, who are mostly Muslims,” Permana said, according to the website. “In addition to rejecting this parish church, we also call for the disbanding of all unauthorized churches in Bekasi Regency [City],” he stated. A church leader, however, said area residents had approved the presence of the church.

Adang said opposition to the church was based in the Islamic roots of the city.

“Historically, sociologically, and demographically, Bekasi cannot be separated from Islam, with the cleric K.H. Noer Ali as one of the founders and developers of the city,” Adang told “Because of this, we reject the church.”

H.M. Dahlan, coordinator of United Muslim Action of Bekasi, also expressed fear that the church would become a center of Christianization in Bekasi.  

“Bekasi Muslims reject the presence of this church,” Dahlan said in a letter that he has circulated among mosques in the Bekasi area. In it he states that plans for the Mother Teresa church would make it the largest church building in southeast Asia. The letter has reportedly generated much unrest among area residents.

At a recent press conference, Dahlan said Unified Muslim Action of Bekasi, along with “all Muslims, mosque congregations, leaders of women’s study groups, Quranic schools, and Islamic education foundations have firmly decided to reject the construction of Mother Teresa Catholic Church in Cikarang and request that the Bekasi Regency cancel all [construction] plans.”

The Islamic groups also called on Bekasi officials to clamp down on “illegal churches” meeting in homes and shops and to block “all forms of Christianization” in the area. Local government officials frequently stall Christian applications for building and worship permits, opening the way for Islamic groups to accuse churches of being “illegal.”

The Mother Teresa church applied for a building permit in 2006, but the Bekasi government has not yet acted on the application, said a clergyman from the church identified only as Pangestu. He added that his church has met all requirements of 2006 Joint Ministerial Decrees No. 8 and No. 9, but the permit has still not been granted. The 2006 decrees require at least 60 non-Christian residents to agree to the construction of a church building, and the congregation must have at least 90 members.

The parish now worships at the Trinity School auditorium.

Pangestu said the church has provided school funds for poor children, free clinics, and food for needy neighbors.  

“There are no problems between the church and the local people,” Pangestu said.

Mother Teresa Catholic Church began worshiping on Jan. 25, 2004.  The church plans to build on an 8,000-square meter lot near Trinity School.

The objections from Islamic groups are the latest evidence of Islamic hostility to churches. Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, released a statement this week that 36 churches in Indonesia have been attacked, harassed or otherwise opposed since 2009; 20 of the churches were located in West Java, with six of those in the Bekasi area.

The list is growing, Bela said, and does not yet include recent reports of 10 churches that local authorities were opposing in Mojokerto, East Java Province, and three others that were closed down in Tembilahan, Riau Province.

Still, large-scale attacks on Christians do not happen as they did in the 1990s and before, he said.

“Now the attacks on churches happen only sporadically,” Bela reported. “In 2007 I noted 100 cases of attacks, and in 2008 the figure went down to only 40 cases, and until October 2009 I noted only eight cases of attacks on Christian churches. But with an attack on St. Albert Catholic Church on Dec. 17, 2009, the figure of cases went up again.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

Despite Court Victories, Church Building in Indonesia Blocked

Islamists attack, issue threats to halt construction of worship center in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 22 (CDN) — A year after a church in West Java won a court battle over whether it could erect a worship building, Islamic extremists have blocked construction through attacks and intimidation tactics, church leaders said.

A mob of 50 Muslim extremists on Sept. 12 attacked construction workers at the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) site in Cinere village, near Depok City, in Limo district, eyewitnesses said; the 24 workers, who were on break, fled from the attackers, who chased them brandishing wooden boards studded with nails. Cinere village police arrived to restore order, but the mob left behind seven banners opposing the construction.

Three days later, Islamic groups demonstrated near the construction site on Puri Pesanggarahan IV St., demanding that all Christian activities in the area cease. About 70 Muslims participated in the demonstration, trying to approach the construction site until hundreds of police repelled them. Police have continued guarding the site.

The church won a case in West Java State Administrative Court on Sept. 17, 2009, rescinding a local order that had revoked the church’s building permit. The Supreme Court later upheld the Bandung court’s ruling, but threats have kept the church from proceeding.

Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the church building committee, said she has received many intimidating text messages from a group opposed to the construction.

“They demanded that the church construction be halted,” she told Compass.

Sitompul added that some of the messages were intensely angry, and that all were aimed at stopping construction.

She said she an official of the Depok municipal government contacted her requesting that construction be delayed two months in order to discuss it with area residents. With a Supreme Court decision backing their case, church leaders declined and continued building.

Sitompul said she never yielded to threat or intimidation because the church construction project has a firm legal basis in the Supreme Court decision.

“There was no need to worry any longer,” she said. “I felt the problem was solved. It is normal for some to be dissatisfied.”

The Muslim Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) reportedly participated in the Sept. 15 demonstration, but the FPI leader for Depok City, Habib Idrus Al Gadhri, denied opposing the area HKBP church.

“The rejection is from the Cinere Islam Solidarity Forum [FSUM] not from the FPI,” Al Gadhri told Compass.

He said that the HKBP church in Cinere is not facing opposition from the FPI but from the entire Muslim community.

“If FPI members are involved, I’m not responsible,” Al Gadhri said. “My advice is for the entire Muslim community in Cinere to sit down together and not demonstrate.”

The church had originally been granted a building permit in 1998. Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the FPI, which in recent years has been responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.


Congregational Concern

Despite having the law on their side, church leaders said many in the congregation are haunted with dread amid outbreaks of Islamic ire at the presence of churches in West Java, such as the Sept. 12 attack on the HKBP church in Ciketing, Bekasi, in which an elder was seriously wounded and a pastor injured.

Peter Tobing, head of the Cinere HKBP church building committee, said that some in the congregation and building committee feared that the outbreaks of Islamic opposition will lead to chaos.

The church is planning to sue the Depok municipality based on the allegation that its actions were illegal and caused deterioration at the site. When Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail revoked the building permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship on March 27, 2009, it led to losses for the church as the congregation had to leave it unattended for a year, according to Tobing.

“Because of this, construction began with the clearing of weeds and building materials [such as paint] that had degraded,” Tobing said.

Sitompul said the bases for the lawsuit are the court decisions declaring the Depok mayor’s revocation of the building permit to be illegal.

“The Depok municipal government must take responsibility for the losses incurred when the building permit was revoked,” she said.

The lawsuit will seek compensation for damages incurred over the last two years, she said.

“We are going to submit all the data to the Depok government,” Sitompul said. “Then we will file our suit in the Depok Municipal Court.”

The church plans to construct its multipurpose building on a 5,000-square meter lot. Construction was halted in the initial stages, with the bottom floor 30 percent completed. The church had spent some 600 million rupiahs (US$66,000), with total costs projected at 2 billion rupiahs (US$220,000).

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Partially Constructed Church Buildings Burned in Indonesia

Outside agitators torch structures; Christians have waited years for building permits.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 29 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists burned two church buildings under construction in a village in North Sumatra on Jan. 22.

The attackers came from outside the area to burn the partially constructed buildings of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) and the Pentecostal Church (GPdI) in Sibuhuan village, Padang Lawas Residency, during daylight hours, said the Rev. S. Lubis of the HKBP church.

“It was a quiet day when suddenly hundreds of people arrived on motorcycles and burned the empty church,” he said. “After that, the mob moved 200 meters down the road and burned the empty Pentecostal church.”

No people were hurt in the fires. Lubis said that those who burned the church buildings were not from the area.

“We didn’t know any of the mob who burned the church,” he said. “When we asked our neighbors, they didn’t know them either, and they did not help burn the church.”

Lubis said that his church had been worshipping at the site since 1970, and that in 1981 they had erected a simple structure. In 2009 – after local officials had held up an application for a permit to erect a permanent building for five years – the church began construction. Area Muslims stopped the construction before it was finished.

“All this time we never had problems with the local citizens,” Lubis told Compass by telephone. “Outside agitators provoked the local people to reject the church.”

The Rev. Marolop Sinaga, HKBP district pastor for south Tapanuli, told Compass that church officials held a meeting in December with the local Indonesian Muslim Leaders Council and the Padang Lawas government. The Muslim leaders demanded that construction stop because no building permit had been issued.

The church complied and stopped construction, even though the building permit had been in process for five years, Sinaga said. Later local Muslims demanded that church dismantle the parts that had been built, to which the church agreed.

The dismantling of the partial construction began on Jan. 13 but apparently did not proceed fast enough for the mob that gutted the two church buildings, Sinaga said.

The HKBP church in Sibuhuan has 272 members. Members of the congregation have been traumatized and many have fled fearing for their safety, church leaders said.

The Rev. Charles Hutabarat of the Pentecostal Church said his congregation began worshipping in homes in 1990. Having waited three years for their permit to be approved, they were in the middle of their building program, he said.

“Because the local citizens had approved the presence of the church, we were surprised that our church was burned like this,” Hutabarat told Compass.

The head of Padang Lawas Residency, Basyrah Lubis, told Compass that the government will facilitate the granting of building permits for houses of worship.

“We have met with other residency leaders such as the police chief, the military commander, the department of religion officials, and other Padang Lawas leaders, and we have decided to process the building permit applications quickly,” he said. “Also, the two churches will be moved; we are searching for a location which will be free of problems in the future.”

Lubis also said he would guarantee the safety of the congregations.

“In addition, we are going to form an Interfaith Harmony Forum for the residency, because we have never had one previously,” he said. “By Feb. 15, this forum will be established. In the meantime, the two congregations will hold services in member homes.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Algerian Church Continues in Spite of Burnt Building

Fellowship in Tizi Ouzou received no police protection despite repeated violence.

ISTANBUL, January 21 (CDN) — Members of a church in Algeria’s Kabylie region gathered to worship last Saturday (Jan. 16) in their new building despite a protest, vandalism and a fire that damaged the building the previous weekend.

Local Muslims bent on running the congregation out of the neighborhood set fires inside and outside the building on Jan. 9.

Before setting it on fire, the assailants ransacked the Tafat Church building in Tizi Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Algiers. The perpetrators damaged everything within the new building, including electrical appliances.

“This last Saturday the church held a service even though not everyone was present,” said Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). “But they continue.” 

The protests against the new church building were unique in the Kabylie region, where the majority of Algeria’s Christians live.

“We are outraged,” Krim told Algerian daily El Watan. “We believe that the degree of intolerance reached its climax. In Kabylie, this sort of practice is unusual.”

The pastor of the church, Mustapha Krireche, said that the fellowship of 300 members had constructed the church building in the neighborhood in order to accommodate their growing needs. They started meeting there in early November of last year.

A short time after the first services, they received a notice from police to stop activities, as local residents had objected to their presence in their neighborhood. The pastor said he refused to sign the notice that police handed to him. Some young people threw rocks at the new building, he said.

Troubles for Tafat ramped up on Dec. 26, when its members gathered for their Saturday morning service. More than 20 local Muslims blocked the entrance to the building, keeping church members from entering. Two days later, some of the protestors broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers.

The following Saturday (Jan. 2), a group of protestors entered the building and stopped the service. That day church leaders had instructed children and women to stay home for their safety, according to Krireche. After protestors became violent and threatened the pastor, church members present decided to close the building so as to avoid more problems.

In the most recent incident, on Jan. 9 protestors entered the building and started to vandalize it, leaving after police arrived. But they returned in the evening to burn anything that they could, including furniture, appliances, Bibles, hymnbooks and a cross. Nothing inside the building was left standing.

Reuters reported that the attack in Tizi Ouzou came days after a spate of attacks on Christians in Malaysia and Egypt, “though there was no evidence of a direct link.”

“The devastation of our church in Tizi Ouzou, which coincides with events in Egypt where they burned churches, leads us to ask questions about the international Islamists,” Krim told El Watan last week. “Is this an example continuing here in Tizi Ouzou? The Islam of our parents is nothing compared to today’s political Islam. To the indifference of the authorities, it manipulates people against Christians.”

Christian leaders have said authorities have not taken appropriate steps to protect the church or bring justice to their claims. The church has filed half a dozen complaints with police on attacks against them in the last two months. Krim told The Associated Press last week that authorities don’t want to intervene out of fear of Islamist retaliation.

The EPA president told Compass that church leaders met with local authorities this week to file a complaint against a Muslim and his hard-line group said to be responsible for the attacks against Tafat.

As of this week, local officials had not responded to Tafat’s request for protection.

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

According to a government decree dating back to June 2007, local officials can prohibit non-Muslim activities if they constitute a danger to the public order or if religious adherents move from their originally planned location, El Watan reported. 

Some Protestants have estimated the number of Algeria’s Christians at as many as 65,000, though the U.S. State Department cites unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined as ranging from 12,000 to 40,000.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, January 7 (CDN) — Police led by Hindu extremists accused a pastor without basis of forceful conversion, reprimanded him for praying without government permission and stopped the Sunday worship of his India People Ministry church on Dec. 27 in Koppa. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that police further warned Pastor D.M. Kumar that he would be arrested if he conducted future worship services.

Karnataka – Members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal accused Christian nurses at Pandapura government hospital of forceful conversion for conducting a small Christmas program on Dec. 25 in Mandhya. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at about 2 p.m., Sophia Parinamala Rani and two others identified only as Philomina and Bajamma organized a small, customary Christmas meeting for staff members and patients, inviting a guest to speak about Christ. Some 20 Hindu extremists reached the hospital and, manhandling the speaker, accused the nurses of forceful conversion. Pandapura police forcefully obtained an apology letter from the nurses, who received a show-cause notice ordering them to explain the meeting to hospital authorities.

Andhra Pradesh – A Hindu extremist roughed up two Christians at a worship meeting on Dec. 23 in Mahabubnagar. The All India Christian Council reported that a pastor identified only as Prabudas and a doctor identified only as Nehemiah were on their way to a service when a Hindu hardliner and karate master, Satya Narayana, pushed and punched them, threatening to file a case of forceful conversion against them. He threatened them with more violence if they continued Christian activities in the area. Local Christian leaders were taking steps to protect the two men at press time.

New Delhi – Hindu extremists assaulted Christians attending a Christmas program of the Full Gospel Church of God on Dec. 22 at Nagafgarh. A source reported that the Hindu hardliners threatened pastors Benny Stephen, K. Cherian and Stephen Joseph, claiming that the program they were attending aimed to convert people by force, and then attacked them. Pastor Joseph suffered injuries to his left leg and back, Pastor Benny to his back and face and Pastor Cherian to his head. Pastor Joseph told Compass that no police complaint was filed as the Christians forgave the attackers.

Tamil Nadu – Hindu extremists attacked a group of Christians on Dec. 20 in Mangalam, Nagercoil. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists objected to a digital sign Christians put up stating details of an impending Christmas celebration and warned them to remove it. When the Christians refused, the extremists beat them, and some of them received hospital treatment for their injuries. A police complaint was filed, but no arrests had been made at press time. 

Andhra Pradesh – Police arrested Pastor P. Benjamin after a Hindu extremist filed a complaint against him of forceful conversion on Dec. 20 in Hyderabad. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Benjamin, of Holy Spirit Church, spoke of Christ with about 200 children at a Christmas program organized by a nearby area’s Christian youth leader. As Pastor Benjamin reached his home, local Christian leaders informed him that police had filed charges of forcible conversion against him under Section 295/A of the Indian Penal Code. Applications for bail were twice rejected. Area Christian leaders were taking an appeal to a higher court, and the pastor’s family was relocated as a security precaution.

Maharashtra – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Dec. 20 attacked members of Christian ministry Operation Mobilization in Manchar and took their film equipment. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that about 100 extremists attacked the organization’s screening of a Christian film, organized by the area pastor with the permission of the village head. As the movie ended, the Hindu hardliners rushed in, verbally abused the Christians for their faith and took a film projector and DVD player. Moses Vatipalli of the AICC told Compass that area leaders of Hindu extremist groups were planning to meet with Christian leaders to settle the matter.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists in Karimnagar on Dec. 15 beat 65-year-old Pastor S. Devavaram and other Christians, accusing them of forceful conversion. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Devavaram and five youths were distributing Christmas literature after obtaining permission from the deputy superintendent of police. At about 9 a.m. a mob of 20 Hindu extremists stopped their vehicle, dragged the pastor out and accused him of forceful conversion. They beat the pastor, tied his hands and locked him and the other Christians in a room till 5 p.m. On learning that the pastor and the other five had been abducted, 10 Christians reported it to police. Officers arrived at the site of the assault and took the Christians to the police station, where the extremists filed a complaint of forcible conversion against the pastor and his team. Police took written statements from the Christians and released them without charges at 6 p.m.

Algerian Muslims Block Christmas Service

Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.

ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.

As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.

The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.

“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.

The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.

One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.

“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”

A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.

On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website The story published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”

“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”

A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.

“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.” 

Behind the Scenes

Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.

“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”

Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.

Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.

“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”

The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.

“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”

There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”

There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.

False Accusations

In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.

The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.” 

Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.

Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.

This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along

Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Conflict in South Sumatra Province illustrates difficulty in obtaining building permits.

JAKARTA, July 15 (Compass Direct News) – Members of several Muslim organizations joined a demonstration on June 27 to protest construction of a Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (HKBP) church building in Plaju, outside of Palembang, capital of South Sumatra Province.

The South Sumatra Muslim Forum (FUI Sumsel) organized the demonstration. Carrying a copy of a mayoral decree dated May 2009 ordering a halt to construction, the protestors gathered outside the building site, listened to speeches and then destroyed a bridge leading to it before demanding that the government ban the building project.

A spokesman from FUI Sumsel who goes by the single name of Umar, said the group objected on grounds that the church had not secured permission from the local Interfaith Harmony Forum nor a building permit; both are required by a Joint Ministerial Decree regulating the establishment of places of worship.

Umar claimed there were few Christians in the area and questioned the need for a church building.

The chairman of South Sumatra’s Interfaith Harmony Forum, who goes by the single name of Syairozi, confirmed that his group had not given permission for HKBP to construct a church building in the area and said such permission was necessary before a building permit could be issued.

The deputy mayor of Palembang, Haji Rom Herton, issued the May decree ordering a halt to construction because of incomplete documentation.

Confronting Bureaucracy

Church members had originally planned to hold a worship service and lay the cornerstone of their new building on June 7.

HKBP Plaju, which first met in 1961, currently worships along with two other congregations in a building owned by the government oil company Pertamina. Several years ago HKBP purchased a 1,370-square meter plot in Palembang, but due to local opposition they were unable to obtain a building permit.

In January, church member Hadi Suroyo donated another 1,500-square meter plot of land to the church, and the congregation drew up plans for a building. A building committee chaired by Saut Tumpal Marpaung then applied to the mayor of Palembang for permission to build a house of worship, but the mayor asked them to approach the governor of South Sumatra.

On Feb. 10 a delegation of church leaders led by the Rev. Japati Napitupulu met with Gov. Alex Noerdin, who said he had no objection to the building of the church.

Napitupulu, responding to criticism that the church pressed ahead with building plans before the application process was complete, said he felt the governor had granted permission in principle. He acknowledged, however, that the church had not “finished working through the permit process at the local level.”

As HKBP Plaju and other congregations have learned through bitter experience, applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities.

Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), in recent years responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.

Report from Compass Direct News


Two female Christian students of Fatima Memorial Hospital’s nursing school in the Pakistani city of Lahore, have been accused of desecrating verses of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, days after their Muslim roommates desecrated a picture of Jesus Christ which they had hung in a shared hostel room, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

ANS has learnt that some days back the Muslim nursing students took a strong exception to the hanging of Jesus’ picture on the wall.

Islamic tradition explicitly prohibits images of Allah, Muhammad and all the major figures of the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Muslim students desecrated the picture by tearing it up and hurling it down after the Christian students refused to remove it voluntarily.

The administration of the Nursing School allegedly took no action against the Muslim students, who committed the alleged profanity.

Christian-Muslim tension among students of the nursing school escalated on Feb. 13 when the Muslim students, who still harbored acrimony against their Christian roommates, accused them of desecrating Quranic verses.

The National Director of Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), Mr. Joseph Francis, and Chief Coordinator of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, Mr. Sohail Johnson, visited scene of the incident after a Christian woman Fouzia informed Sohail by phone about the incident on Saturday morning (Feb. 14).

Talking to ANS by phone, Mr. Sohail Johnson, pointed out a dichotomy between the versions of the Muslim Medical Superintendent, Ayesha Nouman, and the Christian hostel warden, Martha.

In an apparent bid to cover up the matter, Ayesha told the visiting activists that things had returned to normal and the Christian girls who were accused of blasphemy were at the hostel.

Martha, the Christian hostel warden, however, disputed her superior’s version, claiming that the Christian girls accused of blasphemy were not currently staying at the hostel, Sohail told ANS.

“She expressed ignorance about the whereabouts of the nursing students and would not speak any further on the subject for fear of getting into possible trouble herself,” said Sohail Johnson, whose ministry primarily works for Christian prisoners.

ANS further learnt that an “anti-blasphemy” demonstration was staged in front of Iqbal Avenue Hostel near Shaukat Khanum Cancer Memorial Hospital in Lahore on Feb. 13. The demonstrators included Muslim nursing students and people, who were not students of the Nursing School. The angry protesters demanded stringent legal action against the Christian nursing students, one of whom has been identified as Sitar.

Giving out statistics, Sohail said the Fatima Memorial Hospital Nursing School enrolled some 160 nursing students for year 2009.

“I regret that the two Christian students have to face blasphemy accusation. Of course, they managed to get enrolment at the nursing school after a cut-throat competition with Muslim students,” said Sohail Johnson. “The nursing school, Sohail said received some 1400 applications for 2009 session.”

In May 2007, four female Christian Nursing students of Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, were accused of blasphemy. The blasphemy charges were dropped as the committee that was constituted to probe into the blasphemy allegations found the Christian girls innocent.

Sohail Johnson expressed concern over recent abuse of the law by educated people.

He stated, “One could see why ignorant or illiterate people could abuse the law but the misuse of the law by the educated people is a cause of serious concern and has made non-Muslims more vulnerable to the rampant abuse of the law.”

He hailed Christian nurses’ services in the medical sector.

“By implicating Christian nurses in blasphemy cases, it appears some elements want to discourage Christian women from entering medical sector,” he feared. He underscored the need for drawing up a strategy to deal with blasphemy complaints.

Asked how one could expect the police to exercise their duties in an impartial manner while handling blasphemy-accused or blasphemy-related complaints, the human rights activist suggested that workshops should be offered to them (Police) with a view to reform their attitude towards people accused of blasphemy.

“The police often play in the hands of the influential people that also include politicians,” alleged Sohail.

Asked how the international community could influence the Pakistan government to scrap laws perceived as discriminatory by minorities, Sohail Johnson said it could do a number of things. The concerned people, he said, could write letters to the ambassadors of Pakistan in their respective countries.

Report from the Christian Telegraph