A quiet Christmas for two congregations. By Our Indonesia Correspondent
WEST JAVA, Indonesia (Morning Star News) – Two days before Christmas, the Rev. Titus, a pastor in Cimahi, West Java who goes by a single name, was initially too upset to discuss the events that led to the closure of his church.
The usually jovial and open pastor of Isa Almasih Church (Gereja Isa Almasih, or GIA) on Kalasan Street said he had become suspicious of all people, including the reporter who came from Jakarta to meet him.
“The Bandung policemen always phone me,” he told Morning Star News. “I am afraid of my own shadow.”
The Cimahi municipal government sealed the church building, located in a housing subdivision, on Dec. 13 with a sign hanging on the gateway stating, “This building is for a residence and may not be used for worship services or similar activities.”
Church officials had long ago applied for a permit, with the application delayed in bureaucracy without explanation, as commonly happens to Christian attempts in Indonesia. The building had been used for worship for decades, though, without any objection from the surrounding community.
The 2,000 square-meter building has sufficient parking and is enclosed in such a way that congregational praise is not loud to those outside the building. The lot is on a back corner of the subdivision, so it does not interfere with traffic.
Pastor Titus said opposition did not begin until Dec. 1. A mob of 200 Muslims gathered and demanded that use of a residence for worship cease.
On Dec. 8, a crowd of about 500 Muslims arrived, asserting that only a church building could be used as a place of worship; before the week was over, the local government had sealed the property.
Pastor Titus’s frustration has been such that he has been tempted to lash out, he said.
“Sometimes I thought that I wanted to go against the current of Cristian faith – to react violently,” he said.
Instead, the married father of two children has intensified his work by ministering to the church diffused; the congregation of more than 200 has spread into several cell groups. At the same time, Pastor Titus has not surrendered to pressure to sign a statement promising to refrain from using the building as a place of worship because, he said, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Indonesian Constitution.
He said he was frustrated because the government is inconsistent in following the guarantees; rather, it bows to pressure from those who act against the constitution. He said he maintains hope that the church building will receive a permit and that the seal will be removed quickly.
In Bandung, West Java, the Karo Batak Protestant Church (GBKP) was also quiet the nights leading up to Christmas.
Normally church buildings are full of animated life on nights preceding Christmas. The building on the major thoroughfare of Holis Street was empty, however, the night of Dec. 23, when a team of Islamic radicals and police checking church buildings visited the site.
There were no youth activities or worship services preceding Christmas. There was no Christmas tree in the large, open room. There were no Christmas decorations – only a few lights were on. The only sign of life was five young people rehearsing songs in one meeting room.
Pastor Sura Purba Saputra of the west Bandung GKBP congregation told Morning Star News that worship services had stopped after Jan. 27, when 1,000 Muslims from the hard-line Islamic Reformist Movement known as GARIS protested against it. Civil Service Police accompanied the mob, forbidding church services in the building for lack of a worship permit.
Since then, the two-story building accommodating 300 people has not been used for Sunday worship. Pastor Saputra, who earned his degree from Abdi Sabda Seminary in Medan, North Sumatra, said the building was not officially sealed because he refused to sign the closure notice. The father of two said he did sign a letter, however, with the Civil Service Police agreeing to stop worship services in the building.
The GKBP synod had purchased the property in 1992, built a home for the pastor on it and used space next to the house for worship for several years before constructing a sanctuary. Previously, the church put up a tent every Sunday.
Local residents had no opposition, and the church had good relations with them, church leaders said.
“The church even gave aid to the local people,” said Pastor Saputra, who began serving the congregation in 2009.
While they worked on obtaining a permit, the church began constructing a permanent building in January 2011. The building was finished and dedicated on Aug. 26, 2012.
Scarcely five months after the building was finally finished, however, a mob of 1,000 demonstrated against its presence. It had been used for worship only 16 times. The mob from GARIS and the Civil Service Police forced Pastor Saputra to sign the letter agreeing not to hold worship services in the building.
Since then, the congregation has had to move Sunday services to another GKBP building on Lombok Street in Bandung. That building, however, can only be used for funerals, Bible studies, and choir practice. They did manage to hold a children’s Christmas program in their facility on Holis Street.
Pastor Saputra said they are continuing to work on obtaining a permit but are still a few signatures short. Indonesia’s 2006 joint ministerial decree requires signatures of approval from 90 members of the congregation and 60 local households of a different faith, but Saputra said areas resident otherwise willing to sign have declined to do so due to threats from Islamic leaders.
The local block captain has said that he has been threatened by hard-line Muslim organizations; if he signs, his house will be burned.
Photo: Sign sealing shut the GIA church building in Cimahi, West Java. (Morning Star News)