Ardila Syakriah, Jakarta – COVID-19 has led to calls to tone down Christmas celebrations and the introduction of mobility curbs over the holiday, but such restrictions are hardly new in Indonesia.
Some congregations have never really felt able to freely observe the sacred religious holiday, especially those that don't have places of worship to call their own.
This year marks the first time since 2012 that members of the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church (GKI Yasmin) and the Filadelfia Congregation of Batak Protestant Churches (HKBP Filadelfia) have had to cancel their services in front of the Presidential Palace.
The two congregations have held over 200 services in front of the palace after they were stripped of their right to have their own places of worship over a decade ago.
The GKI Yasmin church, located in Bogor, West Java, was closed by the local administration in 2008 after a group of locals objected to its presence, while the half-built HKBP Filadelfia church, located in Bekasi regency, also in West Java, was sealed by the Bekasi administration after it also bowed to public pressure in 2009.
For eight years, hundreds of congregation members performed their religious duties amid the hustle and bustle of the thoroughfares by the palace, come rain or sunshine.
They had no other place to go, but they also did it as their way of reminding the government that their rights continued to be violated, when in fact, the courts had ruled in favor of reopening their respective churches.
"I can't lie, but it's hard to focus on praying out in the open. It reduces the solemnity of our prayers," Ardus Simanjuntak, a church member who manages HKBP Filadelfia, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday. "It's never been our dream to pray there; our dream is to pray at a church that we've built on our own and have fought for."
It was on March 1 that members of both congregations were able to hold Sunday services in front of the palace for the last time this year; the government announced the nation's first confirmed COVID-19 cases on the following day, prompting calls for people to stay at home.
Since then, the congregations have resorted to virtual church services; GKI Yasmin members use videos recorded at home and uploaded on to YouTube, while HKBP Filadelfia members join virtual services held by other churches.
They did not want to take risks; many of them are getting on in age and some have even passed away without having set foot in the churches they had been fighting for.
But both groups also saw it as playing their part in the responsibility to suppress transmission in their respective virus-stricken regions.
Their challenge was twofold; not only were they afraid of contracting a deadly virus, but they also had to be extra careful so as not to put their long-fought battle at stake by stirring up any negative public sentiment.
"We want to keep on reminding the government. But we also don't want to create obstacles by gathering in crowds [...] and prompting negative news about creating COVID-19 clusters. It could affect other churches as well," GKI Yasmin's media team head, Dwiati Novia Rini, told the Post on Wednesday.
Members of the church used to hold routine services on the side of a road for some time after 2010, but even then they also faced opposition.
In 2012, they began to move from one member's house to another, often using garages to accommodate dozens of their people at a time, in addition to the biweekly services in front of the Presidential Palace.
As other churches began to reopen, GKI Yasmin members faced difficulties finding houses with sufficient space to accommodate physical-distancing requirements.
"Because of the pandemic, other churches experienced what we are going through; praying at home and not being able to meet each other without having one's own church building," Rini said.
"It was hard for us to host any gatherings, [but in that regard] we don't see any drastic change [from before the pandemic]," she added.
GKI Yasmin and HKBP Filadelfia members have been among the few to have fought for their rights for so long, but they are far from being the only ones to have their rights to a place of worship violated.
Churches count among the places of worship to have recorded the highest number of persecution cases between 2007 and 2019, with 199 cases, according to data from human rights watchdog Setara Institute.
Setara cited data from the Wahid Institute, which found that between 2013 and 2017, as many as 102 persecution cases against places of worship were instigated by state actors and another 92 by non-state actors.
The persecution of churches by intolerant groups has been further perpetuated by the signing of the 2006 joint ministerial decree on places of worship, which has made it difficult for religious minorities to obtain permits to build places of worship.
Despite the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion for all of Indonesia's citizens, the decree requires a congregation to gather 90 signatures from its members and another 60 from local residents before they are allowed to build a house of worship. Persistent calls for the government to revoke the decree have fallen on deaf ears.
Setara noted in a 2019 policy brief that the reluctance among regional heads to take firm action against this kind of persecution was driven by concerns that doing so might "whittle down electoral [benefits], especially for those who are running for a second term".
Now the pandemic has not only disrupted church services but also dimmed the hopes of GKI Yasmin and HKBP Filadelfia members that they will soon see an end to their long and tiring struggle.
It has made it harder for them to demand a resolution from the government and local administrations as they fear that the epidemic will be used as an excuse to overlook their violated rights.
"Even without the pandemic, we have had to remind the local administration over and over again," Rini said.
HKBP Filadelfia's Ardus said that around half of the congregation members had decided to give up on their fight. "Many of us have become pessimistic. It's been extremely tiring, and I can't blame them," he said.
Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) secretary-general Jacky Manuputty said the group had been pushing for a change in policies, but acknowledged that it had not been easy given that social relations across religious and ethnic communities had been "fragile" in the past two decades as identity politics, hoaxes and prejudices became ever more rampant.
"Our relations with God can be built anywhere, but this is an issue of the rights of our citizens to gather and pray. If we demand [a change], it's not only for Christians' rights, but all Indonesian citizens who have to be treated justly and equally before the law," he said on Wednesday.
The recent appointment of new Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, however, has helped renew hopes that persecution against minority churches could come to an end.
Yaqut is the chairman of the GP Ansor, the youth organization of Indonesia's largest grassroots Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
"We have many friends from NU who also support us. We hope that the new minister has the courage to help us resolve our issue," Rini said.
Yaqut addressed Christians with a Christmas greeting in a video on Thursday, calling for a modest celebration amid the epidemic while also highlighting the need to enhance religious moderation and tolerance.