New Research May Hold Key to Church-Building Controversy

By Testriono

In Bogor, a city in West Java province, the Presbyterian congregation GKI Yasmin has been prohibited by the local administration from holding services in their church for years. Indonesia’s Supreme Court has ruled that revoking the church’s permit is illegal. However, GKI Yasmin and many churches like it have not been protected from a small but vocal minority in Indonesia that has tried to prevent churches from receiving building and worship permits – and in some cases has even organised mobs to attack churches and congregants.

The case of GKI Yasmin is troubling, but is not representative of the status of all churches across the country. Throughout Indonesia, there are churches that successfully receive permits to build churches and whose congregants worship peacefully in religiously diverse neighbourhoods. Those working to resolve the problems in Bogor can look to the positive examples of interfaith relations in communities that have overcome religious tensions.

A 2011 research report entitled The Controversy of Churches in Greater Jakarta was developed by a team of researchers from Paramadina Foundation, a Muslim civil society organisation focused on religious tolerance, along with several civil society organisations with similar missions. It sheds some light on the factors that result in constructive interfaith relations and situations in which churches successfully receive permission to build. The success stories — half of the 13 church building cases studied — demonstrate that there are three factors crucial for congregations to be able to build churches without fear. Churches, as well as religious and political leaders, can learn from these stories.

The first factor is support from the local government and police. These groups have the power to accept or to reject building applications and to stop mobs who want to disrupt the construction process. In the case of the GKI Terang Hidup church in Jakarta, for example, the local police facilitated dialogue between the church building committee and the groups resisting the church’s construction. The police also provided security and informed the surrounding communities about the process.

The second factor is support from religious elites in the surrounding area. For example, in the case of the St. Mikael church in Bekasi, West Java, the church building committee approached a local Muslim leader with a strong popular base in the surrounding community. The approach initiated good relations and changed his attitude to support the establishment of the church.

The third factor is successful dialogue with the Muslim community in the area to avoid misunderstandings and to emphasise that the church is not being built to facilitate proselytising to Muslims, but for the use of church members. All the successfully established churches studied were able to convince their neighbourhood communities that church construction was not meant to enable conversion of Muslims.

For instance, when the St. Albertus church in Bekasi, West Java was being constructed, the church building committee invited nearby communities, local government officials and police to a number of dialogues. This repetitive approach gradually convinced surrounding communities to support the establishment of the church.

These are key factors for preserving good relations between religious majority and minority groups – and should be publicised more widely. They can also apply to the successful establishment of mosques in Christian-majority communities.

It is also important for the committees to anticipate the responses of conservative Indonesian religious organisations, which in many cases have rejected the construction of churches. These organisations, though small in number, have consistently voiced their opposition in certain places and relied on mobilising community members in opposition to a church being built – often through violent means.

Fortunately, mainstream Muslim organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia – and its youth wing have always supported the right to establish houses of worship. Building a church with the support of the local branch of these organisations usually deters radical organisations from violently rejecting the church’s construction. These mainstream Muslim organisations should continue to demand that the local government and police guarantee the right to build houses of worship as well as to educate Muslims to actively support that right.

The central government should learn from this research how to mitigate conflicts caused by church construction and use them to uphold Indonesia’s constitution, which guarantees religious freedom.

Testriono is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at the State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, and assistant editor of its journal, Studia Islamika.

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