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Indonesian Christians Complain Islamic Militants Close Churches


Christian groups in Indonesia say their right to worship freely is being hindered by conservative Muslim groups that have forced more than 30 churches to close this year. However, Muslim groups charge that Christians are violating the law by using shops and houses as places of worship.

As real estate it is not much. Wedged in beside a major highway, off a dirty little lane and behind a Muslim boarding school, it is hard to imagine that these two houses have become the focus of a dispute in the Jakarta suburb of Jatimulya.

Last month, a group of white-robed young men, wearing the peci caps of devout Muslims, arrived and blockaded the houses, which had been serving as the Jatimulya Protestant church.

A sign declares that the buildings were closed on behalf of local government, because nearby Muslim residents objected to the house being used as a place of worship. Under the law, religious groups must obtain permission from local residents before they can build a mosque or a church.

But Reverend Ana Nenoharan, the minister of the Jatimulya church, says it was not local residents, but students from a boarding school outside the suburb, who forced the church closed. She says that the closures are always done by outsiders, because her congregation knows all the Muslims in the area.

Christian groups say more than 30 churches have been forced to close in Indonesia over the past year. Most reportedly were intimidated by a group called the Anti-Apostasy Alliance. Their tactic is to accuse Christians of breaking the law by praying in unlicensed churches, and claiming that local Muslims object to the churches.

But Christian groups say militant Muslim groups are exploiting a law that allows a single person to block the construction of a church. That means applications to build can drag out for years.

Reverend Nenoharan has been waiting for more than a decade to build a proper church. In the meantime, her congregation must conduct services in a street near their boarded up house. She says there are 2,000 Christians here, but not one church, and all the public buildings are either mosques or sports centers.

Reverend Nenoharan says she complained to local government officials that the church was closed down by outsiders, not local residents. She says they went to the district head, and said they are residents here who have the same rights as people from other religions. But, she says, he told them they do not have permission from the government to worship.

Village head Haji Suleiman says he does not to know who boarded up the houses Reverend Nenoharan's congregation used for worship services. He says the church is not closed - just secured. And it was just human beings who did it. He says he does not know who did it, but maybe they are from around this area.

Christian leaders say that in a country where more than 85 percent of the population is Muslim, the law is biased against minorities.

Richard Daulay is the head of the Indonesian Communion of Churches. He accuses the government of failing to protect Christians' rights. "That is the weakness of our government now," he said. "They are not able yet to give freedom to people as it was instructed by constitution."

Mr. Daulay says he complained to Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, about the intimidation. Presidential spokesman, Andy Mallerangeng, says the president has told the Indonesian police chief to prevent attacks on religious minorities.

However, Mr. Daulay complains that some police commanders still say Christian groups are breaking the law, so they cannot block church closures.

Mr. Mallerangeng does say the government is looking at revising the laws. "To make it possible to have some revisions on the rules so that it makes it easier and more transparent on how minorities can set up churches in Indonesia," he added.

However, Reverend Daulay says the intimidation continues. This month, a house used as a church in Makassar, on the island of Sulawesi, was vandalized by a mob. And recently, Reverend Nenoharan says, she was detained for an hour by young men armed with knives, who said they were from an Islamic group.

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