Lao Officials Arrest Five Christians in Southern Village
The following article reports on the latest persecution against Christians in Laos – this time for leading a religious movement without approval.
Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution in India
The following article reports on the latest incidents of persecution in India.
Sudan’s Aerial Bombing Aims at Churches in Nuba Mountains
The following article reports on Sudanese air strikes aimed at churches in South Kordofan state.
The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an
indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.
Bogor official defies Supreme Court, revokes building permit; Christians kept from worship site.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, April 1 (CDN) — A month that saw the Bogor city mayor defying a Supreme Court decision granting a building permit for a church in Bogor, West Java culminated in police turning away those seeking to worship – and church leaders today filing a police complaint on the mayor with National Police.
Bogor Mayor Diani Budiarto issued a decree revoking the building permit for the Christian Church of Indonesia (GKI) in Yasmin Park on March 11, citing unrest among local Muslims and charging the church with having lied about obtaining area residents’ approval when the permit was originally processed. Bogor city officials have also decided to try purchasing the land where the church meets.
Church leaders and rights groups scoffed at the city’s claims and its attempt to remove the church from the area after years of protests from Islamic groups. At a press conference last month, Bona Sigalingging, spokesperson for the GKI Yasmin church, read a statement in which the church and 12 interfaith and rights organizations rejected the mayor’s decree.
“The mayor of Bogor has publically lied and twisted the facts, which are both crimes and public moral failures,” Sigalingging said.
When GKI Yasmin representatives checked the city’s claims of a document with false signatures of area residents approving the church, they found such a document had never been submitted; it did not appear in the application file.
“The entire building permit file had been submitted in 2005, and there have never been any additions,” Sigalingging said, adding that the mayor was rash in issuing the baseless decree. “The reasons [for revoking the church permit] are clearly contrived and unfactual.”
He said the decree not only contravened the 1945 Constitution but was also a violation of law.
“The mayoral decree was [directly] opposed to the court decision that the building permit was legal and binding,” he said. “We also request that the mayor rescind Mayoral Decree No. 645.45-137/2011 regarding the revocation of the GKI Yasmin building permit and recognize the court decision that the building permit is legal and binding.”
Supporting the GKI Yasmin church were 12 interfaith organizations: The Wahid Institute, the Human Right Working Group (HRWG), the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) Jakarta, the Commission on the Lost and Victims of Oppression, the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches, Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, the Sinode of the Christian Church of West Java, the Indonesia Legal Research Center, the National Diversity Alliance, the Legal Aid Foundation of Indonesia and the Gusdurian Forum.
Church lawyers today filed a complaint on the Bogor mayor with the National Police detective unit in response to a statement Budiarto made yesterday (March 31) to newspaper Radar Bogor that attorney Jayadi Damanik described as a threat, The Jakarta Post reported.
Citing a report from kompas.com, the Post quoted Damanik as saying, “We believe Diani Budiarto has committed unpleasant conduct, issuing threats of violence. We think the police need to deal with this.”
The mayor had called for action against the church if it insisted on standing by the Supreme Court ruling granting its building permit, according to the Post. It also reported that Damanik said the church had sent a legal representative to the Home Ministry to report the Bogor mayor for overstepping his duties.
Budiarto was not immediately available for comment.
On March 13, some 200 police officers blockaded the church, lining each side of KH Abdullah Bin Nuh Street in Bogor under the pretext that they were preventing clashes with about 20 Muslim protestors, church leaders said.
Authorities set up barricades and questioned every person who wished to go to the church location. Compass observed them turning away several GKI members carrying Bibles and heading toward the worship venue. Police parked nine cars and trucks along the fence in front of worship site – the congregation has been worshipping on a strip of land between the road and a fence – in order to keep the congregation out. A vehicle with a water cannon was parked about 500 meters from the site.
Eventually the congregation realized that they could not worship there and left.
The previous Sunday, March 6, the congregation had been able to open the lock that the city had placed on its church building on April 10, 2010. After pushing and shoving between police and church members, the congregation was able to enter and hold a one-hour service led by GKI Yasmin Pastor Ujang Tanusuputra.
As the service was taking place, Bogor Police Chief Nugroho Slamet Wibowo ordered GKI Yasmin church lawyer Damanik and the congregation to stop the service. Wibowo suggested they shift to the Harmony Building, some 500 meters away, in order to avoid clashes with 2,000 Muslim demonstrators outside the mayor’s office whom Wibowo said would be arriving.
Citing the court ruling that declared the congregation could worship at the church site, Damanik declined.
The worship service finished peacefully, and the congregation happily departed. The predicted 2,000 Muslim protestors failed to materialize.
The next day, Bogor city officials invited GKI leaders to discuss the conflict, and the church representatives were accompanied by the LBH Jakarta, the HRWG, a representative of the Wahid Institute, the Interfaith Society and others. In the meeting, Bogor officials announced that the city was revoking the building permit and buying the disputed land.
“Upon hearing this, the GKI rejected the sale and reminded the Bogor government to obey the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Fatmawati Hugo, a member of the GKI legal team.
On March 12, GKI representatives met with police at the Giant Shopping Mall in Yasmin Park, where authorities ordered the church not to take unilateral action.
The police also guaranteed that firm action would be taken against anyone who tried to lock the GKI Yasmin site, but, ironically, that night at 11:30, policemen accompanied members of the Public Order Agency as they padlocked the gate to the GKI Yasmin church, Hugo said.
About 20 church members, mostly women, could only look on with sadness, he said.
“It’s odd that the police accompanied those who locked [the gate] rather than obeying the law and stopping the sealing,” Hugo said.
A few minutes later, at 12:05 a.m., police issued an ultimatum: All persons and vehicles were to clear the area in front of the church. A tow truck arrived and approached a member’s car parked in front of the gate.
“The church members chose to stay and sang several Christian songs,” said Hugo.
Police officers advanced and tried to take congregation members by force. The women were prepared to be arrested, but efforts to detain them ended when a GKI lawyer asked for reasons for the arrests and for arrest warrants. Church members stayed and unrolled mats so that they could hold a part of the roadside strip for the 8 a.m. worship service. About 15 prayed and sang songs through the night.
Around 4:30 a.m., more police arrived. A mobile brigade commanded by West Bogor Police Chief Hida mobilized to force out those on the side of the road; the crowd dispersed in the face of fully armed police.
“Because they were terrorized, they abandoned the roadside strip,” Hugo said.
After clearing the area, police blockaded 500 meters of KH Abdullah Bin Nuh Street at about 7 a.m., using six truckloads of mobile police and an armored car. They had used the same tactic on Dec. 26, 2010, to prevent the congregation from a Christmas service.
At 7:30 a.m., about 20 Muslims unrolled banners at a corner near the Giant Shopping Mall charging the GKI Yasmin church with deception. “Hard-heads, want to build an illegal church here? Step over our dead bodies first,” read one banner.
The congregation held a short worship service at 8:30 a.m. in the home of a nearby member.
Report from Compass Direct News
Demonstrators drive out 100 Christians in one service, stop worship in others.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 18 (CDN) — About 200 demonstrators from hard-line Islamic organizations in West Java on Sunday (Dec. 12) disrupted the worship of a church in Rancaekek district, Bandung, driving more than 100 worshippers from the building.
Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement arrived with the Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district and sealed the house, thus leaving other churches that use it without a worship venue. The protestors also disrupted the worship of six other churches meeting in homes the same day.
The demonstrators arrived at 9 a.m., when the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (of HKBP) Bethania church building had begun worship in the building where a pastor and his family live. The protestors urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was a private house rather than registered as a place of worship.
About 10 minutes into the church’s worship, the demonstrators removed by force more than 100 members of the HKBP church on Teratai Street, the pastor said.
“Because they were fearful, children and women were crying when they came out of their place of worship,” the Rev. Badia Hutagalung told Compass by phone.
Hutagalong, 26, lives in the second story of the building. Church officials declined to say who owned the home.
Hutagalung said the congregation resisted the temptation to clash with the Islamic protestors, who were using ambulance sirens to disrupt the service.
The Civil Service Police Unit of Rancaekek district then affixed a document on the front of the building declaring, “This house has been sealed because it has violated Bandung Regency Regulation No. 16, of the year 2009, about building administration.”
HKBP elder Jawadi Hutapea said the document was signed by the head of Rancaekek district, Meman Nurjaman, and the chief of the Civil Service police.
Nurjaman reportedly said use of a private house as a place of worship violated the cited regulation.
“It should be only a place to stay but in fact functioned as a place of worship,” Nurjaman told Tempo News. “Now we’ve sealed the house. From now on, the house may only be used as a house to live in.”
Hutagalung said the church was using the house because it had not been able to obtain permission to establish a church building under conditions imposed by Indonesian law. The Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires places of worship to obtain the approval of at least 60 persons from the local community, mandates there be at least 90 church members, and the church must be approved by the the village head.
“These terms are very difficult for us to fullfil,” Hutagalung told Compass.
The HKBP congregation was established in Rancaekek district in 1999, he added, because of the absence of a church for ethnic Bataknese in the area.
District head Nurjaman reportedly suggested that the church use a room at the College of Public Administration in Jatinangor, Sumedang Regency. Hutagalung said his congregation could do that, but he said not all the churches that use the building could merge together there.
“If we are forced to worship with other churches in the college complex, it is the same as closing the HKBP church in Rancaekek,” Hutagalung said.
He said he had received the suggestion from the district head for the churches to merge worship in the college complex a few weeks ago. Hutagalung said he has sought permission for the churches to worship separately in the college complex, but so far he has not received a response from the college building administrator.
If the HKBP church has not found an alternative venue this Sunday, the congregation plans to worship in front of the house that has been sealed, he said.
Other Churches Targeted
Other churches based in homes in the district met with the same opposition from Islamic protestors.
The Indonesian Evangelical Tabernacle Church (GKII), which began 20 years ago, met at 9:15 a.m. but the Islamic demonstrators appeared and insisted that they disband immediately, said a GKII pastor identified only as the Rev. Margaretha.
She said worship ended within 20 minutes because the protestors broke through an iron fence to force their way in.
“The mob lifted and slammed the fence until it was damaged,” Pastor Margaretha.
About half of the 60-member congregation, which consists mainly of women, was crying, she said. The protestors forced her to sign a letter promising not to use the house as a place of worship.
“They also damaged the door and the Christmas tree,” Pastor Margaretha said. “In the stressful situation, finally I signed the letter.”
Margaretha added that the demonstrators also took four chairs used for worship.
The Pentecostal Tabernacle Church also began its worship on Sunday (Dec. 12) before the Islamist demonstrators interfered.
The Rev. Filemon Sirait told Compass by phone that when the congregations began to worship at 9:30 a.m., the Islamic protestors suddenly massed in front of the house and forced them to stop.
Seeing that the demonstrators were willing to use force, the congregation finished their worship after only 15 minutes, he said.
“We worshiped only in prayer after that time,” Sirait said.
The demonstrators then barged into the house with a document for the pastor and congregation to sign stipulating that they would not use the place for worship, he said.
“Because we were depressed and fearful, finally we signed the letter stating that we agreed not to use the residential house as a place of worship,” Sirait said.
The church was established in Rancaekek district 12 years ago.
The Muslim protestors also disrupted the worship of the Church of Pentecost-Rancaekek, led by the Rev. Bungaran Silitonga. Established 10 years ago, the church has 40 members.
Silitonga told Compass that the Muslim demonstrators stormed into their house at around 2 p.m. and took 37 chairs used for worship activities.
“They took 37 chairs on the order of the district of Rancaekek,” he said.
Silitonga called the head of Rancaekek district to complain about the stolen chairs, and by evening the official had found and returned them, he said.
Islamist protestors reportedly succeeded in sealing five of seven houses used for Christian worship on Sunday. Other churches whose house worship was disrupted were the Indonesian Christian Church, a Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Christian Church.
Report from Compass Direct News
With possibility of secession by Southern Sudan, church leaders in north fear more land grabs.
NAIROBI, Kenya, October 25 (CDN) — Police in Sudan evicted the staff of a Presbyterian church from its events and office site in Khartoum earlier this month, aiding a Muslim businessman’s effort to seize the property.
Christians in Sudan’s capital city told Compass that police entered the compound of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) on Oct. 4 at around 2 p.m. and ordered workers to leave, claiming that the land belonged to Muslim businessman Osman al Tayeb. When asked to show evidence of Al Tayeb’s ownership, however, officers failed to produce any documentation, the sources said.
The church had signed a contract with al Tayeb stipulating the terms under which he could attain the property – including providing legal documents such as a construction permit and then obtaining final approval from SPEC – but those terms remained unmet, church officials said.
Church leader Deng Bol said that under terms of the unfulfilled contract, the SPEC would turn the property over to al Tayeb to construct a business center on the site, with the denomination to receive a share of the returns from the commercial enterprise and regain ownership of the plot after 80 years.
“But the investor failed to produce a single document from the concerned authorities” and therefore resorted to police action to secure the property, Bol said.
SPEC leaders had yet to approve the project because of the high risk of permanently losing the property, he said.
“The SPEC feared that they were going to lose the property after 80 years if they accepted the proposed contract,” Bol said.
SPEC leaders have undertaken legal action to recover the property, he said. The disputed plot of 2,232 square meters is located in a busy part of the heart of Khartoum, where it has been used for Christian rallies and related activities.
“The plot is registered in the name of the church and should not be sold or transfered for any other activities, only for church-related programs,” a church elder who requested anonymity said.
The Rev. Philip Akway, general secretary of the SPEC, told Compass that the government might be annoyed that Christian activities have taken place there for many decades.
“Muslim groups are not happy with the church in north Sudan, therefore they try to cause tension in the church,” Akway told Compass.
The policeman leading the officers in the eviction on Oct. 4 verbally threatened to shoot anyone who interfered, Christian sources said.
“We have orders from higher authorities,” the policeman shouted at the growing throng of irate Christians.
A Christian association called Living Water had planned an exhibit at the SPEC compound on Oct. 6, but an organization leader arrived to find the place fenced off and deserted except for four policemen at the gate, sources said.
SPEC leaders said Muslims have taken over many other Christian properties through similar ploys.
“We see this as a direct plot against their churches’ estates in Sudan,” Akway said.
The Rev. John Tau, vice-moderator for SPEC, said the site where Al Tayeb plans to erect three towers was not targeted accidentally.
“The Muslim businessman seems to be targeting strategic places of the church in order to stop the church from reaching Muslims in the North Sudan,” Tau said.
The unnamed elder said church leaders believe the property grab came in anticipation of the proposed north-south division of Sudan. With less than three months until a Jan. 9 referendum on splitting the country according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, SPEC leaders have taken a number of measures to guard against what it sees as government interference in church affairs.
Many southern Sudanese Christians fear losing citizenship if south Sudan votes for secession in the forthcoming referendum.
A top Sudanese official has said people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence. Information Minister Kamal Obeid told state media last month that south Sudanese will be considered citizens of another state if they choose independence, which led many northern-based southern Sudanese to begin packing.
At the same time, President Omar al-Bashir promised full protection for southern Sudanese and their properties in a recent address. His speech was reinforced by Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s address during a political conference in Juba regarding the signing of a security agreement with First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit (also president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan), but Obeid’s words have not been forgotten.
Akway of SPEC said it is difficult to know what will become of the property.
“Police continue to guard the compound, and nobody knows for sure what the coming days will bring,” Akway said. “With just less than three months left for the South to decide its fate, we are forced to see this move as a serious development against the church in Sudan.”
Report from Compass Direct News
But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.
ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.
Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”
At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.
He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.
Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.
“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”
At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.
Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.
The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.
“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”
Still, he expressed qualified happiness.
“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”
The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.
“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”
Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.
“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”
Christianity on Trial
The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.
In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”
Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.
Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.
“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”
The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.
Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.
Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.
Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.
Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.
In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.
Report from Compass Direct News
Court revokes decree prohibiting Christian activities of HKBP Filadelfia.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 15 (CDN) — A court in West Java Province has revoked a local decree that forbade Christian activities of a church in Bekasi and has ordered officials to allow the Christians to establish a place of worship.
After months of conflict and legal battles, the State Administrative Court in Bandung on Sept. 3 revoked the Dec. 31, 2009 decree prohibiting Christian activities of Batak Christian Protestant Filadelfia Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestant, or HKBP Filadelfia) in Jejalan village, Bekasi. The church had argued that the decree, along with the closure of their worship building on Jan. 12, resulted from pressure by Islamist groups that did not represent the wishes of the area residents.
The Rev. Palti Panjaitan of HKBP Filadelfia said he was happy that the church at last had found fair authorities who based their decisions on the rule of law, “unlike the regent of Bekasi, who often has been unjust in making a decision by tending to side with a small group of people.”
Since 2008 HKBP Filadelfia has sought permission for a place of worship from Bekasi Regent H. Sa’duddin, who declined to grant it under pressure from a small group of Islamists called the Forum Islamic Ummah Jejalen Raya Bekasi, according to church leaders. The group succeeded in pressuring the Bekasi district to seal the church’s temporary worship place on Jan. 12.
As a result, the church had been holding services on a strip of roadside land in front of the temporary site, using umbrellas to protect them from the intense heat of the sun and from sudden rainstorms.
The judges, identified only as Setiobudi, Irna, and Susilowati, ruled that the regent of Bekasi should issue a permit for the church to establish a place of worship.
“This point is important because if the regent of Bekasi does what the judge said, then we will build our church and no longer serve in the hot sun and the rains that sometimes come unexpectedly,” Pastor Panjaitan said.
He said the church will give notice to the area residents, government officials and security forces to accept the decision of the administrative court.
The regent was given 14 days to appeal, and a member of the church legal team, Parasian Hutasoit, said that the regent has no legal grounds to reject the judges’ decision.
“The decree of the regent of Bekasi is contrary to the constitution of 1945, which is the constitutional foundation of the Republic of Indonesia,” Hutasoit said. “The decree had violated Article 28 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. Also, it was contrary to Article 29, which guarantees freedom of worship and Law No. 39, 1999, concerning human rights.”
HKBP Filadelfia is now able to worship in the building that was sealed by the regent in January, he said.
Regent Sa’duddin had ruled that the church needed to find a new place to construct its prospective permanent church building because local residents had rejected it – even though the church had secured approval from local residents when it submitted its application for a permit in 2008.
The local government never acted on the application, and Islamist organizations organized protests to pressure government officials to deny approval. The church on March 30 filed suit against Sa’duddin for unilaterally closing their building under construction.
Hutasoit said church leaders would try to approach the regent to discuss the matter further.
“We need not hurry to do that, because all that happens is God’s plan,” he said.
If efforts prove unsuccessful, then the church leaders will proceed to enforce the judges’ ruling through legal means, he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.
Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”
Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.
The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.
The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.
Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.
Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.
Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.
Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.
Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.
“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”
Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.
Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.
Church Attack Trial
Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.
Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.
Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.
The trial is ongoing.
Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.
The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.
Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.
On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.
Report from Compass Direct News
Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.
DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.
At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.
“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”
Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.
Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.
“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”
Declaration of Intent
Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.
Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.
Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.
“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”
A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.
Contributing to Religious Conflict
Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.
Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.
A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.
Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.
These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.
Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.
“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.
As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.
“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.
The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”
“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”
“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.
Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.
Report from Compass Direct News