Permission for church services in shopping center not necessary, rights advocates say.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 2 (CDN) — After closing churches in West Java, South Sulawesi, Sumatra, and other provinces, hard-line Islamic organizations are now attempting to stop Christian worship in or near shopping malls.
Dozens of people from Islamic organizations demonstrated in front of the Gandaria City Mall in south Jakarta on Nov. 19, protesting worship of an unnamed church at the shopping center. After about an hour, mall management in the presence of the sector police chief spoke with demonstrators, who said they opposed the services because there is a Quranic boarding school nearby.
“In front of the mall is a Quranic school that has been there for dozens of years,” said demonstrator Hamdani, according to Poskota newspaper.
The head of the mall, identified only as Ridwan, denied that there was any church or worship service there. He told Poskota that the demonstrators were misinformed and that he had resolved the matter with them.
Jeirry Sumampouw, executive secretary of the diakonia department of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that no one has the right to forbid worship in a mall. He said a mall is a public space that can be used for any purpose, including worship.
“A mall is multifunctional and can be used in any manner, as long as it is good and doesn’t disturb things,” he said. “The government must be firm with demonstrators who tried to forbid worship services at Gandaria City Mall, because if nothing is done, this can spread to other places.”
The difficulty of getting building permits for churches has caused an increase of worship in malls, Sumampouw said.
“Because of this, many churches are using malls as places of worship,” he said.
He said the state should protect every citizen that worships, especially those in malls or shopping centers.
“Mall managers are often frightened so much that they will forbid worship activities in their malls,” he added.
Citing the Quranic school as a reason to forbid worship at the Gandaria City Mall is without legal basis and highly subjective, Sumampouw said. Raw emotion without consideration of justice motivates those who wish to stop Christian worship, he said, adding that they merely oppose any appearance of Christianity.
“Remember, this is not a country of one religion only,” he said. “These motives are wrong. The reasons to forbid worship are fabricated.”
Sumampouw said opponents’ motives go beyond mere anti-Christian sentiment – there are hoodlums who are intolerant of minority religions, including those who extort money, seize land, and oppose Christians because of personal grievances.
Saor Siagian, coordinator of the Religious Freedom Defense Team, said that Islamic prohibition of worship in malls urgently needed to be addressed.
“If demonstrators are able to prohibit worship activities, it means that they are able to forbid constitutional rights of citizens, because the constitution states that every citizen is free to practice his faith,” he said.
Forcing worship to stop, Siagian said, not only violates the constitution but is also a criminal offense.
“Because of this, the police must act decisively,” he said.
Demonstrators must understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens, he said, because no one has the right to forbid people to practice their faith in Indonesia.
“Because of this, I urge any Christian congregation that is the object of a demonstration to report it to police and lodge a complaint that there is a threat of force,” he said. “It is also fair to see if the demonstrators have a permit or have notified police. There should be no illegal demonstrations.”
Siagian advised all congregations that as citizens they must not give in to vigilantes, including “anyone wearing a robe,” a reference to Muslim extremists from the Islamic Defenders Front and other hard-line groups that wear long white robes.
There is no need to obtain a permit to worship in a mall under Indonesian law, he said. If a worship service took place at Gandaria City Mall, Saor said, the congregation could continue to meet there.
“If a congregation bows to the wishes of a mob, then it is the same as vigilante rule, which violates the constitution,” he said.
Mall managers are not obliged to reject Christian worship, he said, because Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution states that every citizen is free to worship. Siagian added that if Christians were forbidden to worship once a week in a mall, then demonstrators need to be consistent and press for a ban of all forms of worship at malls, including Islamic prayers said five times a day.
“Those would also need to be forbidden,” he said.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice president of the Setara Institute for Justice and Peace, said he was surprised at opposition to worship at Gandaria City Mall. Malls are public spaces where many different activities may take place, he said.
“Because it’s a public space, there is no relationship between permits and worship,” he said. “It’s different if you want to erect a church [building] on your own property.”
Naipospos said churches are meeting in malls because obtaining permits is so difficult. The government and the Interfaith Harmony Forum should quickly resolve the conflict, he said.
“I fear that this incident will become a model that will be imitated by intolerant gangs in other places,” he said.
The demonstrators’ reasoning that worship cannot be held because of the nearby Quranic school is not rational, Naipospos said. Because a mall is a public place, he said, it is not beholden to any particular community or religion.
If there happened to be a worship service in Gandaria Mall, Bonar would urge them to continue meeting.
“Let’s not bow to any intolerant hoodlums,” he said. “We don’t need to worry.”
Report from Compass Direct News