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

Chinese Rights Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Missing Again

Two weeks after release, Christian vanishes while in police custody.

DUBLIN, May 7 (CDN) — Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer released by Chinese officials on April 6 and missing again since April 20, is “definitely in the hands of Chinese security forces,” Bob Fu of the China Aid Association (CAA) told Compass.

“We’ve heard the reports and we’re investigating this closely,” Fu said. “Right now nobody has been able to locate him. The Chinese security forces need to come up with an explanation.”

Gao, initially seized from his home in Shaanxi Province on Feb. 4, 2009 and held incommunicado by security officials for 13 months, was permitted to phone family members and colleagues in late March before officials finally returned him to his Beijing apartment on April 6.

In a press conference held in a Beijing teahouse the day after his return, Gao said he wanted to be reunited with his family, who fled to the United States in January 2009, and he claimed he no longer had the strength to continue his legal work. He also said he could not comment on the treatment he received while in captivity.

Gao also told a reporter from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that he expected to travel to Urumqi within days of his release to visit his in-laws.

Witnesses saw Gao leaving his apartment sometime between April 9 and 12 and getting into a vehicle parked outside his building, SCMP reported on April 30. Gao’s father-in-law reportedly confirmed that Gao arrived at his home with an escort of four police officers but spent just one night there before police took him away again.

Gao phoned his father-in-law shortly before he was due to board a flight back to Beijing on April 20. He promised to call again after returning home but failed to do so, according to the SCMP report.

Fu said he believes that international pressure forced authorities to allow Gao a brief re-appearance to prove that he was alive before officials seized him again to prevent information leaking out about his experiences over the past year.

During a previous detention in 2007, Gao’s captors brutally tortured him and threatened him with death if he spoke about his treatment. Gao later described the torture in an open letter published by CAA in 2009.

Gao came to the attention of authorities early last decade when he began to investigate the persecution of house church Christians and Falun Gong members. In 2005 he wrote a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao accusing the government of torturing Falun Gong members.

When the letters appeared, authorities revoked Gao’s law license and shut down his law firm, sources told CAA.

He was given a suspended three-year jail sentence in December 2006, following a confession that Gao later claimed was made under extreme duress, including torture and threats against his wife and children. Gao was then confined to his Beijing apartment under constant surveillance – forbidden to leave his home, use his phone or computer or otherwise communicate with the outside world, according to a report by The New York Times.

A self-taught lawyer and a Communist Party member until 2005, Gao was once recognized by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland’s top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work on human rights cases, according to SCMP.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Construction of Two Churches Stopped in Indonesia

Government unduly seals shut one church building, Islamic mob forces halt to another.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 25 (CDN) — An Islamic mob stopped construction of Santa Maria Immaculata Catholic Church in Citra Garden, West Jakarta earlier this month even as government officials in Yasmin Park, Bogor, West Java halted work on an Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) building.

On March 12, the same day GKI faced closure from government officials, protestors led by the United Islam Forum (FUIB) blockaded the entrance to Citra Garden, demanding that construction of the Catholic church building there cease. They based their demand on the claim that it did not have the approval of the local citizens, but the church had official permission and therefore has been under construction for several weeks.

The building permit was posted in plain view, but the Islamic protestors said they felt that not all citizens had agreed to allow the building.

The Rev. Peter Kurniawan Subagyo of Santa Maria Immaculata said the church belonged to the parochial district of Cengkareng, but that the district became so large (20,000 people) that a separate parish needed to be established. The church had found an 8,000-square- meter lot in Citra Garden.

The building permit was processed normally, and all necessary citizen signatures were secured, he said. The Jakarta provincial government approved the permit, which was formally published in state-owned media on Jan. 18.

Shortly after approval of the building permit, the church building committee went to work. Construction had been under way for only a few weeks before Islamic crowds began demonstrating in the name of the local citizens.

Church leader Albertus Suriata said the congregation never has had problems with local people.

“We have had good relations,” Suriata told Compass. “I don’t think that anyone near the church had objections. We suspect outsiders.”

He said that the church had attempted to resolve the problems posed by the protestors through a number of informal channels.

“We had just begun to build,” he said. “Do we have to stop just because of demonstrations? Besides, we have official permission from the government.”

SealedIn West Java, Bogor city police on March 12 sealed the construction site of the Yasmin Park Indonesian Christian Church. Previously the Bogor city government had revoked the church building permit, claiming that the congregation created “uneasiness” among local people.

Sources said the permit revocation and closure were the direct result of pressure from organizations such as the Muslim Communication Forum of Indonesia (FORKAMI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, and the Muslim Lawyers’ Team (TPM), which had repeatedly called for a halt to church construction.

Chief Abdul Rahman of the Bogor police said he sealed the building site on instructions from Area Secretary Bambang Gunawan.

“We followed the instructions of the Bogor Area Secretary and sealed the church,” Rahman told Compass.

The Bogor city government’s claim that the church caused “uneasiness” among the local people is false, said a source who requested anonymity. The source said the Bogor city government came under pressure from several Muslim organizations to revoke the building permit, and that in fact Yasmin Park residents had no objection to a church in their midst.

“Relations between the church and the residents were always good,” the source said.

Ayu Augustina, leader of Muslim Communication Forum of Indonesia in Bogor, was resolute in his opposition.

“We intend to continue meeting – we will pursue this matter to the end,” he told Compass. “The church must be sealed.”

GKI spokesperson Ujang Sujai said that the church is working to arrange a meeting between the Area Secretary Gunawan and Yasmin Park residents said to be opposed to the building.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Court Reverses Revocation of Indonesian Church’s Building Permit

Outside Islamists had intimidated local officials into withdrawing approval.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 8 (CDN) — A court in West Java has reversed the revocation of a Catholic church’s building permit.

The Purwakarta regency government had revoked the building permit for Santa Maria Catholic Church when Islamists threatened local residents and officials into opposing the project, church leaders said.

The church sued the Purwakarta regency for revoking the approved building permit in Cinangka village last October, and in a little-publicized court ruling on Feb. 25, a judge in a state court in Bandung, West Java decided in favor of the church.

“The error arose when external forces pressured the Purwakarta government so much that it revoked the building permit,” the head of the church legal team, Dr. Liona Nanang, told Compass. “Government sources have admitted that this was done because of outside pressure.”

The church official said objections to the church under construction did not come from residents of Cinangka village, where the church is located.

“We called the village headman and the block captains to testify,” Nanang said. “According to them, the objections are not from Cinangka villagers, but from citizens of Cikampek, which is not even in our district [county].”

The Purwakarta government is planning to appeal the case, but Nanang said church lawyers are optimistic that construction likely would resume once the High Court in Jakarta rules.

On Oct. 16 the regent of Purwakarta regency, Dedi Mulyadi, revoked the construction permit after Islamists threatened some of the local residents whose approval is required by Indonesian law. Church leaders said members of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) “continually terrorized” both the regent and residents who had previously given their approval.

A Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires the permission of more than 60 neighbors and a permit from local authorities to establish a place of worship. The more than 60 local citizens giving their approval must provide photocopies of their identity cards.

Nanang said that the judge agreed with the plaintiff that there had not been any irregularities in the process of obtaining a building permit. The judge found that the Purwakarta government had violated basic principles of good government including justice and the rule of law.

“A building permit can be legally cancelled if there is no construction activity within six months of the date of publication of the permit,” Liona told Compass. “However, Santa Maria Church began to build immediately.”

The court also ruled that the Purwakarta government had no legal reason to revoke the building permit. The Joint Ministerial Decree Number requires not only a minimum of 60 signatures of those not using the building but a minimum of 90 signatures of those who will use it, and the church had obtained the signatures of 93 non-users and 170 church members who would use the building.

The Rev. Augustinus Made of Santa Maria Catholic Church concurred that revocation of the building permit came about from extremely heavy pressure from the FPI and other radical Muslim groups.

“We rejoice in the verdict,” he said. “We had fulfilled all of the regulations. We built on land that had been zoned for a house of worship – land that we purchased.”

At the time the building permit was revoked, land had been prepared, the area fenced and the foundation laid.

The church had planned its building on a 5,000-square meter lot in a sparsely populated industrial area on land zoned for houses of worship. The congregation of over 1,000 has been worshipping in a steel factory warehouse some distance from the building site since its inception in 2002.

The lot developer had supplied facilities for all faiths; Muslims have two large mosques and an Islamic chapel at each factory. The government plan for the Bukit Indah Industrial Park included facilities for general and social purposes, including places of worship.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Foreign Ministry spokesman asserts ‘full religious freedom’ despite arrests, torture.

DUBLIN, May 8 (Compass Direct News) – A U.S. government body cited increased harassment, imprisonment and torture of members of unregistered religious groups in China last year, which a Chinese official roundly denied.

After the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week recommended China remain on the U.S. Department of State’s list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said USCIRF’s report was “an attempt to smear China.”

“It is a fact that the Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of religious belief according to law, and every ethnic group in any part of China enjoys full religious freedom,” Ma Zhaoxu, said Tuesday (May 5) in a statement quoted by the Chinese daily Xinhua.

The commission acknowledged that “the freedom to participate in officially-sanctioned religious activity increased in many areas of the country over the past year,” but noted that abuses of members of unregistered religious groups had extended to a small handful of lawyers who dared to defend them.

In at least 17 provinces, some 764 Protestant leaders and house church members were arrested in the past year, 35 of whom were sentenced to prison for a year or more, the report said. According to the state department, the total number of Protestant house church members and “underground” Catholics arrested in the past year may be in the thousands.

Religious freedom also deteriorated significantly in Uyghur Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist regions over the past year, according to the commission report. Officials have urged “stronger management” of Protestant and Catholic activity in Xinjiang, while new laws have allowed greater control over Muslim and Buddhist community leaders in both regions.

Police detained Chinese house church leader Lou Yuanqi in Xinjiang province in May 2008, charging him with “inciting separatism” and “utilizing superstition to undermine the law.” A local court refused to accept his case due to insufficient evidence, but Yuanqi remained in detention until his release on bail on April 24.

Officials further restricted religious freedom in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet during the period USCIRF covered for the report, May 2008 through April 2009. Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), urged local police and religious affairs officials to “exercise stronger management” over Protestantism and Catholicism and strictly guard against foreign infiltration and sabotage, the commission stated.

On Jan. 1, 2008, new laws gave officials in both regions greater powers to monitor the training, assembly, selection and speeches of community religious leaders. More recently, officials have enforced bans on religious education; authorities in Tibet have warned parents to keep children away from religious ceremonies, while Xinjiang officials in February and March began a campaign to halt illegal religious schools and arrest anyone engaged in “cross-village worship.”

The campaigns in Xinjiang have largely targeted Muslims, but Uyghur Christians are also affected. Unable to freely attend government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) Protestant churches, they continue to meet in small groups in private homes, risking arrest and detention in labor camps.

House church Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) remains in arbitrary detention awaiting trial, 15 months after his arrest. Officials initially closed the foreign-owned business Alimjan worked for in September 2007 and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity.” He was then detained in January 2008 on charges of endangering state security and was formally arrested on Feb. 20, 2008 on charges of “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets.

Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence. The case was returned to court for consideration last October.

On April 21, attorney Li Dunyong petitioned for and was granted permission for a rare meeting with his client on April 21 after witnesses saw police and a prison doctor escorting Alimjan to hospital on March 30; Compass sources said Alimjan had been beaten in prison, although it was not clear who beat him or why. When Li questioned him, Alimjan indicated that he was not allowed to speak about his health.

Officials also continued tight surveillance of underground Catholic groups across China last year, according to USCIRF.

The official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) insists on selecting and ordaining clergy and forbids clergy or CPA members to have contact with the Vatican or other foreign Catholic organizations, USCIRF stated. The Vatican, however, has secretly ordained as many as 90 percent of CPA bishops and priests, the commission reported.

China watchers say pressure will increase rather than decrease as China anticipates several significant political anniversaries later this year.

Troubled Rights Advocates

The crackdown has extended to lawyers, particularly those handling religious rights cases. In March, officials revoked the license of Beijing’s Yitong Law Firm; the firm’s lawyers had been handling cases for unregistered house church Christians.

Christian attorney Gao Zhisheng, known for defending unregistered Protestant Christians and Falun Gong members, disappeared in February. Immediately prior to his disappearance, Gao had published a report of torture endured during a September 2007 interrogation. At press time his whereabouts remained unknown. (See “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist,” March 25.)

Court officials in November 2007 sentenced Gao’s legal partner, Yang Maodong, to five years in prison for “illegal business practices.” Prison guards have reportedly tortured Yang with electric shock batons and other implements.

Earlier, in September 2007, officials beat prominent religious freedom advocate and attorney Li Heping with electric batons and ordered him to stop practicing law. When he refused, officials revoked his license.

Given these developments, the commission has urged the U.S. government to include religious freedom concerns in its discussions with the Chinese government.

Under terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, U.S. government officials are obliged to address religious rights concerns with the government of any country designated as a Country of Particular Concern.

Report from Compass Direct News


Christian leaders assert decision breaches religious law.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 5 (Compass Direct News) – Church members in Depok city, West Java, are unable to use their church building after the mayor, citing protests from area Muslims, revoked a permit issued in 1998.

Under a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, all religious groups in Indonesia must apply for permits to establish and operate places of worship.

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Cinere village, Limo sub-district, in 1997 applied for permission to construct a church building and auditorium on 5,000 square meters of land, said Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project. Permission was granted in June 1998, and construction began but soon stopped due to a lack of funding.

After construction began again in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted banners on the walls of the building protesting its existence. Most of the protestors were not local residents, according to Sitompul.

By then, the church building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services.

Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail asked church leaders to cease construction temporarily to appease the protestors. Six months later, in January 2008, the church building committee wrote to the mayor’s office asking for permission to resume work on the project.

“We waited another six months, but had no response,” Sitompul said. “So we wrote again in June 2008 but again heard nothing.”

The building committee wrote again in February, asking for dialogue with the protestors, but members of the Muslim group also wrote to the mayor on Feb. 19, asking him to cancel the church permit.

On March 27 the mayor responded with an official letter revoking the church permit on the grounds of preserving “interfaith harmony.” When challenged, he claimed that city officials had the right to revoke prior decisions, including building permits, at any time.

The Rev. Simon Todingallo, head of the Christian Synod in Depok, said the decision breached SKB regulations and was the result of pressure from a small minority who did not want a church operating in the area. Rev. Todingallo added that the ruling is illegal since the mayor has no right to decide alone, but must also involve Religious Affairs and Internal Affairs ministries.

Saddled with an expensive building complex that was effectively useless, church officials said they would attempt to negotiate with the mayor’s office for the return of the permit and seek legal counsel if negotiations failed.

Report from Compass Direct News