By BosNewsLife Asia Service
JAKARTA, INDONESIA (BosNewsLife)– Many Christians in Indonesia’s most conservative Muslim province of Aceh are without their own places of worship this weekend after authorities closed down nine church buildings as part of a reported wider crackdown on “illegal” religious services in the heavily Islamic nation.
Indonesian Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi defended the action saying the congregations operated illegally. “It was a permit matter, so it’s actually not closures,” he told surprised media.
“I have talked to Aceh Governor [Zaini Abdullah] and he said that the permits were not issued because [the churches] failed to meet the requirements set by the joint ministerial decree,” Fauzi explained in a statement.
Congregations were advised to attend churches that have building permits such as the more traditional Catholic Church, Western Indonesia Protestant Churches (GPIB) or Filadelfia Batak Protestant Churches (HKBP), Indonesian media reported.
Reverend Nico Tarigan of Gereja Bethel Indonesia (GBI) Peunayong in Banda Aceh said the nine churches were unlikely to receive official permits as they are considered small and outside the mainstream denominations.
He said they have agreed to meet in the buildings of four churches that have permits. However, “The agreement is intimidating, because it states that if we hold services, the municipal government will not be responsible for any anarchic actions [mob violence or attacks],” the church leader added in published remarks.
Hundreds of angry Muslims already attacked the GBI Peunayong Church on June 17 because they opposed worship services in the shop-house, he said. The mob forced the Christians to end their meeting and also broke church equipment, according to Christians.
Earlier, in April, Aceh authorities reportedly ordered 20 churches to end operations and demanded that members tear down their church buildings by June 8.
“The closures come as no surprise, given the extremely conservative interpretation of Islam observed in Aceh,” wrote commentator Kornelius Purba wrote in The Jakarta Post newspaper.
“However, such actions have, regretfully, become commonplace throughout the nation, as local governments move to close the places of worship for Christians and minority Muslim sects on a regular basis,” Purba stressed.
Elsewhere authorities in the capital of West Java province, Bandung, also shut the worship building of an Indonesian church.
The 20-year-old church, known as the Huria Kristen Indonesia (HKI) was forced to end its services there on October 23 after leading Muslims pressured residents to withdraw their signatures of approval, its pastor, Hari Hutagulung, said.
Additionally, a previously closed church in Bogor City, 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, has been told it will not be allowed to reopen, according to local Christians.
Instead authorities want Bogor’s Taman Yasmin Indonesia Christian Church (GKI Yasmin) to relocate about 7 kilometers (4 miles) away after a September meeting of the mayor, Interior minister and officials of the hardline Muslim Communications Forum (Forkami), Christians said.
GKI Yasmin spokesman, Bona Sigalingging, said in published remarks that his church would not comply with the order. “No matter where, no matter how beautiful or how expensive the new location, we will not accept.”
He said moving the church would mean betraying Indonesia’s often,quoted motto: ‘Unity in Diversity’ and undermine the rule of law in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Yet, advocacy group Barnabas Fund, suggested there was some sign of hope as a Christian politician made electoral history in Indonesia by taking one of the country’s highest posts.
“Bakusi Purnama was elected vice governor of Jakarta, becoming the first Christian to assume such a high position in the capital, despite opposition from hard-line Muslim groups,” Barnabas Fund observed.
“His inauguration ceremony was delayed from 7 to 15 October because of protests by extremists.”
Barnabas Fund said however that “Mr Purnama has won respect for his honest leadership.” It was not immediately clear how this would impact churches. However, “He has promised to bring reform by emphasizing transparency and servant-leadership among public officials,” Barnabas Fund told BosNewsLife in a statement.