Katharina Reny Lestari – The denial of building permit to a Protestant church in Cilegon city in Indonesia's westernmost province of Banten goes against the spirit of religious moderation, Christian leaders say.
The Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) criticized the refusal of permit for the construction of a church by the Batak Society Christian Church (HKBP) Maranatha in Geram village.
"This incident harms the 1945 Constitution, which guarantees equality of every citizen to adhere to a certain religion and to worship freely in accordance to their own religions," Reverend Jeirry Sumampow, a spokesman of PGI, said in a statement on Sept. 9.
He said the politics of identity had become worse and was threatening religious tolerance. "It is sad to see that there are still groups of people who hurt their brothers and sisters," he added.
The opposition to the church came from a group of Muslims calling themselves the Committee of Local Wisdom Savior in Cilegon. They staged a protest on Sept. 7 demanding denial of permission based on then Serang district head's 1975 decree providing for the closure of Christian places of worship in the area.
They later met with Cilegon Mayor Helldy Agustian in his office and pressured him to sign on the dotted line. A video of the incident went viral on social media.
Reverend Hotman T.M. Marbun from HKBP Maranatha told UCA News that the concerned authorities had refused to give approval despite the church building committee abiding by a 2006 joint ministerial decree, which had revised earlier regulations on the places of worship.
"But we have not received any response until now," he said while adding that the congregation really needed a church building.
HKBP Maranatha in Geram village was founded in 1999 and has 3,903 members who usually go to another church located about 40 kilometers away from the village for Sunday services.
"The lack of a church building is a serious problem for us. The congregation's spiritual formation cannot be carried out properly. We all believe that a place of worship is the central and strategic venue to educate worshippers properly and to grow the children's faith," he said.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, said Islamist groups in the city have been trying to promote Sharia law dating back to the Banten sultanate in the province dating back to the sixteenth century.
"That is why they think there must be no other religion or tradition besides Islam," he told UCA News.
Meanwhile, Wawan Djunaedi, who heads the Religious Affairs Ministry's Center of Religious Harmony, said the 1975 decree under which the church was denied a construction permit was no longer relevant because it was issued when the city's population was 99 percent Muslim.