Jakarta – The Cilegon government's refusal to allow a church in the steel town of Banten province does not bode well for Indonesia's reputation as it prepares to host a major international meeting to discuss peaceful coexistence between religious communities around the world. The Religion 20 (R20) Forum scheduled for Nov. 2-3 in Bali is part of the activities of Indonesia's Group of 20 presidency this year, which will culminate with the G20 Summit in mid-November.
R20 will bring in top religious leaders from around the world to discuss problems and grievances in interfaith relations around the world, according to its organizers. If the intention is to showcase Indonesia's interfaith relations, then the Cilegon church controversy will undermine that claim. But on the other hand, it could also be an interesting and certainly topical case study for the R20 meeting to discuss.
The case revolves around the rejection by the town's community leaders of a plan to build a house of worship for the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) in Cilegon, home to state-owned PT Krakatau Steel and many other large steel-related manufacturing companies.
Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Quomas scorned the city leaders for blocking the church plan but he has not made any difference. Someone should step up the pressure. The denial is clearly in violation of the Constitution which guarantees citizens freedom of religion and the right to practice their faiths, including to build places of worship. The problem may be at the city level, but the central government must intervene, lest it shares the blame for denying citizens their constitutional rights.
Cilegon is not an isolated incident. We have seen many similar cases of communities rejecting the presence of houses of worship for minority religious communities. Setara Institute runs a periodic survey of the most tolerant cities around the country, which measures the relationship between majority and minority religious communities. Cilegon has consistently ranked low in the survey in recent years.
Opposition to the HKBP church plan is overwhelming with a petition signed not only by community leaders, but also joined by institutions that should stay neutral and help find a solution, like the Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB), the city council and the town's mayor and vice mayor.
The petition refers to a 1975 ordinance by Serang regency banning the construction of churches in Cilegon. The rule, besides being unconstitutional, is outdated as it was issued when Cilegon was a small coastal village when 99 percent of the population were Muslims. Today, it is a modern city with migrants and expatriates living and working to contribute to the economy of Banten. But when it comes to houses of worship there are only mosques, with no churches or temples, even though the share of its non-Muslim population has grown significantly.
The HKBP is leading the challenge to this status quo. It has 3,900 followers in Cilegon but they have had to drive one hour to their nearest church in Serang to perform their weekly masses. HKBP leaders say they have fulfilled all the administrative requirements to build the church, including securing the signatures of 70 neighboring residents.
The lurah (subdistrict chief), has been sitting on the application to prevent the construction from the beginning. The FKUB is now on the counteroffensive claiming that HKBP had committed fraud in securing the approvals of the neighbors.
Whatever the situation is, the government better be quick in finding a solution. Failing that, it should prepare to face a major embarrassment at the R20.