Representative for HKBP congregation in West Java tells court sealing was illegal.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, June 18 (CDN) — In a hearing in its lawsuit against a local government, a representative for a church that Bekasi, West Java officials summarily closed earlier this year told an administrative court that the action was unconstitutional.
The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) Filadelfia church had filed a lawsuit on March 30 against the local government for its Jan. 12 sealing of the building under construction. Regent H. Sa’adudin on April 12 issued a decree to cease worship and other activities.
At a court hearing on June 2, the coordinator of the litigation team, Thomas Tampubolon, explained that the regent’s decree of Dec. 31, 2009 to seal the building conflicted with Indonesia’s 1945 constitution. He said the decree violated Article 28 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.
“It also violates Article 29, which guarantees freedom of worship, and Law No. 39 (1999) concerning human rights,” Tampubolon said as he read the suit to an administrative court.
Tampubolon said that the decree also violated 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree No. 9 regarding the role of regional administrators in maintaining harmony between religious groups and in the construction of houses of worship.
Lastly, he said that the regent’s decree violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2005. The legal team requested that the Bandung Administrative Court issue an injunction staying the decree of the Bekasi regent.
Additionally, the team requested that the regent’s order be rescinded and that he be ordered to process the building permit request and to grant permission to construct a house of worship in accordance with current regulations.
Deddy Rohendi, a member of the regency defense team, replied that Tampubolon’s claims were false, and he requested that the court dismiss the suit.
“The regent’s decree was legal,” Rohendi said.
As the judges are considering the HKBP Filadelfia’s case, they are expected to travel to the village to interview citizens about the church building.
A member of the legal team who is also a member of the church, Parasian Hutasoit, said that the Filadelfia congregation was very upset with the Department of Religion and the Interfaith Harmony Forum because neither had acted upon the request for permission to build which was submitted on April 2, 2008.
“Our application has not been acted upon, and suddenly our church is sealed without clear reason,” he said.
Hutasoit said he regretted that the church had been forced to resort to court action. He added that he hopes the suit will force the government to show more care regarding the problem of places of worship and ensure the rights of groups such as HKBP Filadelfia that have obtained the required signatures of local people.
Prior to the hearing, Muslim opponents harassed the church’s Sunday worship, demonstrating against it on May 30, as they have on past occasions.
The group of women and children said they were from the Islamic Communications Forum of Jejalan Raya village. They gathered at 8 a.m. in order to hinder church members from worshipping in the area in front of the sealed building.
The Rev. Palti Panjaitan explained that the demonstration lasted about 15 minutes, ceasing after a community leader from Jejalan Raya village told the demonstrators they were causing a disturbance. Worship for the church is normally from 9 to 11 a.m.
“Only the building committee and the church leaders had come,” said Panjaitan.
He recounted that on May 27 the church learned a mob was going to demonstrate the next day and notified police.
“Apparently the demonstrators thought that because Friday was a holiday, we would have services,” Panjaitan said. “Actually, we did not have anything.”
He wished that the police would be more proactive about demonstrations. “As for the demonstrators, what more do they want? We have been forced to worship under the sky, on newspapers, in front of our sealed church, and they still demonstrate against us,” Panjaitan concluded.
On Jan. 3, a mob unrolled mats and sat in front of the church. “They wanted to keep us from worshipping,” Panjaitan said.
The Filadelfia Church was founded in April 2000 by Batak families in four village divisions in the North Bekasi area. They held Sunday worship in different homes on a rotating basis.
Citizens from the Islamic Communications Forum of Jejalan Raya village were disturbed by these house services. After the house services were banned, the congregation searched for a piece of land on which to build.
On June 15, 2007, HKBP Filadelfia was able to purchase land from a woman identified only as Sumiati. The Christians told her that they wished to build a church on the property, and Sumiati and her heirs signed affidavits stating that they agreed to this use. The Bekasi government issued the deed on Sept. 26, 2007.
After the purchase, the church began collecting signatures of local citizens in order to satisfy the requirements of 2006 Joint Ministerial Decrees No. 8 and No. 9 requiring at least 90 Christians and at least 60 non-Christians agreeing to construct a church building.
The church quickly obtained the required signatures, and on April 2, 2008 the head of Jejalan Raya village issued a letter recommending that the congregation be given a building permit. The letter was addressed to the Regent of Bekasi with copies to the Department of Religion, the Interfaith Harmony Forum and the District Officer of Tambun Utara (a sub-district of Bekasi).
Since then, nothing has been done. No building permit has been issued. Since Jan. 12 the Bekasi Regency Government has sealed the temporary building the church had been using. As a result, the congregation has been holding services in front of the building fence in the open air.
Umbrellas protect them from the tropical sun, where temperatures often reach 33 degrees Celsius (92 degrees Fahrenheit), and occasional rainstorms hit.
Authorities in Bekasi, West Java run into determined lawyer, congregation.
BEKASI, Indonesia, March 11 (CDN) — Efforts by local officials in this city in West Java to close a church met with stiff resistance this month, as a defiant lawyer and weeping women refused to allow it.
Women of the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) cried in protest as officials from the Bekasi Building Department on March 1 placed a brown signboard of closure on the church building in Pondok Timur, Bekasi, 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Jakarta.
The seal stayed in place for about two minutes before some of the shrieking women tore it down. The sign was trampled as furious church members stampeded over it, shouting and screaming. Bekasi city officials turned and ran as the congregation fanned out.
The defiance followed a heated debate within the same church building minutes before, as the Christians had invited the Bekasi officials inside to discuss the matter when they arrived to seal the building. The discussion soon became heated as a city official asserted that the church did not have a building permit.
The church had applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials had yet to act on it, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak.
At the meeting inside the church building, attorney Refer Harianya said that the sealing process was illegal, as it requires that public notice be given.
“HKBP has never seen nor received the formal order and has not acknowledged such an order by signing a receipt,” Harianya said. “In addition, public notice must be given in the form of formal reading of the order.”
Harianya added that the legal basis for sealing the church was weak. The Joint Ministerial Decree revised in 2006 clearly states in Paragraph 21 that when there is a problem with the building of a house of worship, it must be solved through formal consultation with local residents, he said.
“At this stage, resolution has not taken place,” he said.
Harianya said that in case such a consultation failed to resolve conflicts, then the mayor may consult with the Department of Religion – “in a just and non-prejudicial manner” – taking into account suggestions from the Interfaith Harmony Forum.
“On this point, up to March 1, the church has never been invited to talk with the mayor,” he said.
The Joint Ministerial Decree had not been correctly applied in the sealing of the church, Harianya concluded, adding that contested cases could always be taken to court.
“We still have some legal avenues open,” he said. “This is not the time for a surprise sealing.”
Harianya also cited Mayor Decree No. 16 (2006) regarding the construction of a house of worship in Bekasi City, where Article 11 states that before a building is sealed there must be three written notices given. This process also had not been carried out, he said.
“Because you have not followed the procedures which I have outlined, we will act as if the sealing never took place,” Harianya told city officials as members of the congregation cheered.
The sealing of the church would thus be illegal, so the government had broken the law, he said. Harianya said that HKBP members would not hinder officials from carrying out their duties, but that they would be named in a lawsuit.
One of the officials, identified only as Pemana, responded, “Go ahead and sue.”
“If the seal is in place,” Harianya said, “We can break it because the act of sealing is illegal. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” answered the 75 parishioners present.
With the meeting ending in a deadlock, city officials prepared to place the signboard to seal the church, with the ensuing tumult.
Mayor Fails to Show
Prior to the showdown, at 10 a.m. Pastor Simanjuntak, the Rev. Pieterson Purba and Harianya had a scheduled a meeting with Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohamad – promised by an official named H. Junaedi during a demonstration on Feb. 28 – only to discover that the visit had not been placed on the mayor’s schedule.
As they waited, Pastor Simanjuntak received a mobile phone call saying that city building officials were at the church site and had been there since 9 a.m.
The following day, March 2, the HKBP leaders and leaders from three other churches were able to meet the mayor, who promised to help them find new places of worship. While they waited for the new sites, the mayor suggested, the HKBP church could use a multipurpose room belonging to the Social Department starting March 7.
Subsequently, Pastor Simanjuntak and members of the congregation rejected the proposal, reasoning that moving somewhere else was equivalent to being ejected from their building.
Worship resumed as usual at 7 a.m. on Sunday, March 7, under the strict watch of police and soldiers who had stood guard all night. The service finished two hours later without incident.
“Because this was a congregational decision, from next Sunday onwards we will be holding services in the house of worship here at No. 14 Puyuh Raya Street,” said Pastor Simanjuntak.
Report from Compass Direct News
Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.
DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.
Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.
In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.
The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.
The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.
Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.
Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.
History of Religious Repression
Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.
Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.
The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.
The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.
Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”
The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”
A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.
While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.
Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.
Heightened Security, Control
Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.
At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.
The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”
Report from Compass Direct News