Village congregation goes to court over loss of permit; SETIA students demonstrate for new campus.

JAKARTA, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Christians have stood up for their rights in two key cases the last few weeks in heavily Muslim Indonesia.

Members of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Cinere village, Depok, West Java appeared in court on June 29 to contest the mayor’s revocation of their building permit in March, while students of the shuttered Arastamar School of Theology (SETIA) demonstrated in Jakarta on June 15, asking officials to honor promises to provide them with a new campus.

HKBP church leaders filed suit against the decision in the state court in Bandung, West Java. Two court sessions have been held so far, on June 2 and June 29, with Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail represented by Syafrizal, the head of the Depok legal department and who goes by the single name, and political associate Jhon Sinton Nainggolan.

Mahmudi issued a decree on March 27 cancelling a building permit that was initially granted to the HKBP church in Cinere on June 13, 1998, allowing it to establish a place of worship.

The mayor said he had acted in response to complaints from residents. Contrary to Indonesian law, however, Mahmudi did not consult the church before revoking the permit.

Nainggolan, arguing for Mahmudi, claimed the revocation was legal because it was based on a request from local citizens and would encourage religious harmony in Cinere. But Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project, strongly disputed this claim.

“Our immediate neighbors have no objection,” she told Compass. “A small minority who don’t think this way have influenced people from outside the immediate neighborhood to make this complaint.”

Sitompul added that the church had been meeting in a naval facility located about five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the church building since the permit was revoked, causing great inconvenience for church members, many of whom did not have their own transportation.

According to Kasno, who heads the People’s Coalition for National Unity in Depok and is known only by a single name, the mayor had clearly violated procedures set forth in a Joint Ministerial Decree, issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, regulating places of worship.

Legal advocate Junimart Girsang, representing the church, confirmed that under the revised decree, conflicts must not be solved unilaterally but through consultation and consensus with the parties involved. He also said it was against normal practice to revoke a building permit.

Construction of the church building began in 1998, shortly after the permit was issued, but halted soon afterward due to a lack of funds. When the project recommenced in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted protest banners on the walls of the building. Most of the protestors were not local residents, Sitompul said.

By that stage the building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services. (See “Mayor Revokes Church Permit,” May 5.)

SETIA Protest

In Jakarta, hundreds of SETIA students demonstrated in front of the presidential palace on June 15, calling on officials to honor promises made in March to provide them with a new campus. (See “New Building Site Found for Bible College,” May 11.)

At least 1,400 staff and students remain in three separate locations in sub-standard facilities, causing great disruption to their studies, according to the students. The original campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, closed after neighbors attacked students with machetes in July 2008 and remains cordoned off by police.

In negotiations with SETIA director Matheus Mangentang in May, Jakarta officials again promised to assist the school in finding a new site, and promised to work with neighbors to secure approval for a building permit.

Joko Prabowo, the school’s general secretary, said he believes officials have now reneged on these promises. When school officials recently requested relocation to Cipayung, East Jakarta, the governor’s office rejected their proposal, citing community resistance.

Deputy Gov. Prijanto, who has only a single name, had initially suggested Cikarang in West Java as a new location, but SETIA staff rejected this offer, saying the site was outside Jakarta provincial limits and a move would be prohibitively expensive.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Attack mainly by outsiders carried out during Independence Day celebrations.

JAKARTA, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – On Sunday (August 17) a Muslim mob stormed a church service in Cipayung, East Jakarta, forcing Christians to flee and then erecting banners in the street declaring a ban on “churches and religious services.”

As about 20 church members were celebrating the nation’s Independence Day at the service, the angry assailants arrived at the Pentecostal Church of Indonesia in Pondok Rangon village, Cipayung, at 9:30 a.m. shouting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is greater!” Some in the mob were neighbors, but the majority were not local residents, according to pastor Chris Ambessa.

Church members tried to close the gate leading into the church compound, but the mob forced its way in, storming into the welcoming room of the church and overturning furniture.

Ambessa managed to close a roller door protecting the room where services were held. But the attackers then chased church members out into the street, warning them not to return for future services.

The intruders then erected large banners in the street declaring a ban on “churches and religious services” in the village. Technically prior approval from district officials is required to erect such banners, but Public Order official Hadi Sumantri and plainclothes policemen present made no attempt to intervene or remove them.

Two days prior to this incident, Ambessa sought permission from district officials to hold a special thanksgiving service on Independence Day. Officials gave verbal approval, despite contention over the existence of the church.


Demolition Order

Ambessa has been in the middle of a dispute over his house church. On July 3 the Cipayung civil engineering department had ordered Ambessa to dismantle the second floor of his home, and on July 13 it ordered him to cease religious activity for an indefinite period following neighborhood protests against the house church. Neighbors had demanded that Ambessa completely demolish the building.

Ambessa, whose home has functioned as a legally recognized house church for the past 12 years, built the second floor extension to accommodate his growing congregation. Realizing the prohibitive cost and difficulty of obtaining a Religious Building Permit (IMB), and on grounds that the building was a residential home, Ambessa had proceeded with the extension without applying for the IMB.

Ambessa’s lawyer, August Pasaribu, told Compass he planned to challenge the demolition order, since the demand was in breach of local regulations.

Construction of the extension was completed on May 17. On May 21, a neighborhood group threatened Ambessa and forced him to sign a document stating that he would cease holding church services in his home. Ambessa told Compass that he had signed the document under duress, fearing attacks on his wife and daughters.

Ambessa had planned to rent a separate building for church services in another location, at a cost of 8 million rupiah per year (US$862). After Sunday’s attack, however, Ambessa said he felt disheartened and saw little point in reporting the incident to the local police station since he did not expect positive intervention.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Neighbors threaten his family, demand destruction of house used for church services.

JAKARTA, July 24 (Compass Direct News) – Officials in Cipayung district, East Jakarta, have ordered Pastor Chris Ambessa of the Protestant Church of Indonesia to dismantle the newly constructed second floor of his home and to cease all religious activity in the area.

Ambessa’s lawyer, August Pasaribu, told Compass on Monday (July 21) that he planned to submit a letter to the Cipayung civil engineering department asking it to cancel the July 3 order to dismantle the second floor of the home, since the demand was in breach of local regulations. Authorities’ order to cease area religious activity for an indefinite period followed on July 13.

Pasaribu said he also hoped to file a report with the East Jakarta police department regarding an incident on May 21, in which Ambessa’s neighbors forced him to sign a document agreeing to cease religious activity.

Ambessa, however, is still weighing the likely consequences of legal action for his family and congregation.

The pastor’s home in Pondok Rangon village has functioned as a legally recognized house church for the past 12 years.

On June 6, authorities sent a letter ordering him to cease work on the second-floor extension. Construction, however, had already been completed on May 17.

When church services continued, approximately 20 young men led by a local resident approached the Cipayung district offices on June 25, demanding that Ambessa’s house be demolished.

On May 21, a similar neighborhood group had threatened Ambessa and forced him to sign a document stating that he would cease holding church services in his home. Ambessa told Compass that he had signed the document under duress, fearing attacks on his wife and daughters.

Having established his small congregation in 1996 with the requisite permission from neighbors and civic authorities, Ambessa said he was determined to protect the right of his church members to worship freely.


A Positive Influence

The pastor began his ministry in the village in February 1995, working with young men in the village who were drinking at night and disturbing local residents.

By April 1996, the young men had given up drinking and were attending church services. The neighborhood Public Order official, a volunteer with a wide range of responsibilities from overseeing garbage collection to resolving community disputes, made a point of thanking Ambessa for his positive influence in the community.

In May 1996, local Public Order officials and the head of Cipayung district gave Ambessa permission to hold services in his rented home. Ambessa also sought and received permission from 70 neighbors to establish a house of worship, meeting the requirements of a 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) regulating places of worship.

After purchasing the house in 2002, Ambessa decided to extend the building to cater to his growing congregation.

Officials in Cipayung, however, had created a new regulation requiring churches to apply for a special religious building permit (Ijin Mendirikan Bangunan or IMB), considerably more expensive than an ordinary building permit. Realizing the prohibitive cost and the difficulty of obtaining such a permit, and on the grounds that the building was a residential home, Ambessa decided to proceed with the extension without applying for a religious IMB.

As one Compass source noted, enforcement of building regulations is notoriously inconsistent in Indonesia. Many private homes are built or extended without building permits, and mosques are often built or extended without a religious IMB – but the law is applied more stringently to churches.


Confusion Over New Regulation

Neighbors objected to the extension based on a revision of the 1969 SKB that came into effect on March 21, 2006, officially known as Perber 60/90. Issued by the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Religious Affairs, the decree spelled out conditions for the construction of new churches as opposed to existing churches.

Under the revised decree, new churches must be clearly identified as such, with a cross on the roof and a design “appropriate to a place of worship.” At least 60 immediate neighbors must approve the construction project, along with Public Order officials, the head of the village and district, and the “local community harmony forum” (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama), consisting of a panel of residents from different faiths.

In addition, the church must have at least 90 adult members.

The decree applied only to new church construction projects and therefore not to Ambessa’s home-based congregation, in existence since 1996. Neighbors, however, were confused about the new regulation and demanded that it be applied to Ambessa’s church.

On July 13, a contingent of local officials – including a senior police officer, the head of Pondok Rangon village and the head of Cipayung district – arrived at Ambessa’s home and asked him to cease all religious activity for an indefinite period to alleviate rising tensions.

Ambessa complied on July 15, calling a halt to church services. He then obtained a lawyer, Pasaribu, to defend both his home and his congregation’s freedom to worship as outlined in Article 29(b) of Indonesia’s constitution, which says, “The state guarantees the freedom of every citizen to hold his/her own religion and to worship according to his/her religion or faith.”

Report from Compass Direct News