Jon Afrizal, Jambi – The eyes of the children in the Assemblies of God Church (GSJA) in Kenali Barat sub-district of Jambi sparked with merriment as they sang "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" during a service to welcome the holy day in the church's front yard on Saturday.
Amid the excitement, however, the children looked puzzled when they saw the door of their house of worship being sealed. Rumors have it that the church caretaker was going to sell the building.
"God, don't sell our church. We want Christmas," so the children said during the prayer, which was met by a bitter smile by Jonathan Klasier, a pastor at the GSJA.
The GSJA is among three churches recently forced to close by the Jambi city administration following rejection from residents who argued that the churches did not have building permits. The other two are Kanaan Methodist Church and the Huria Kristen Indonesia (HKI) Church.
Jonathan said he had explained to the children about the problem faced by the congregation, which forced them to hold their Christmas service in the church's front yard. "I keep trying to spread the spirit of love and joy of Christmas to [the children]," Jonathan said.
The pastor said he had visited residents in the neighborhood to discuss the issue, but many of them claimed they had not opposed the church's existence in the first place.
Now the church must obtain at least three permits, one each from the local neighborhood unit leader, local customary agency and local mass organization Laskar Melayu, to continue its activities, he said.
"We – Christians and Muslims – have lived together in the community for decades and we don't fully understand why the church was closed," Jonathan said, "We hope to resolve this problem soon."
The Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) has deplored the churches' closure in September, saying that it violated citizens' constitutional rights to practice their religions. The three churches, PGI said, had also made efforts for years to obtain permits in accordance with the prevailing regulations.
Jambi National Unity and Politics Agency head Liphan Pasaribu said the office was currently looking for solutions, including to reopen the Methodist Church, the oldest church, so that congregations could take turn to hold services.
The three embattled churches, however, had different structures and therefore the church leaders refused to do so, he said.
The option to relocate the HKI to nearby Pinang Merah housing complex was also met by resistance because another HKI already existed and the congregations refused to have a new church building in the area, Liphan said. "Please give us a month, we will resolve this problem," he said.
Jambi Interfaith Community Forum (FKUB) secretary Fuad Rahman said the churches must complete both the administrative and the special requirements to obtain permits, citing the 2006 Joint Religious Affairs Ministry and Home Ministry Regulation (SKB) on maintaining religious peace.
According to the SKB, the establishment of a house of worship requires support from at least 60 residents and a written recommendation from the local interfaith community forum. (afr/swd)