Local government officials in Bandung, West Java, have ordered eight house churches in the Rancaekek Kencana housing complex to cease meeting in private homes starting January 15.
Each church received the order by letter, following a meeting on January 12 attended by local government officials, police, the commander of the local military and the leader of a local Muslim forum.
The letters, issued by the Office of National Unity and Public Protection in Bandung district, instructed churches to stop using private homes as worship venues.
Several of the eight churches in the Rancaekek complex met for worship last Sunday morning anyway, saying they had no alternative venue. The churches first applied for permits in 1993, when the housing complex was built, but their applications were repeatedly rejected.
Under a ministerial decree issued in 1969, all religious groups must apply for permits before establishing places of worship. Since neighbors must give their approval before a permit is granted, the decree is a huge obstacle for church groups meeting in majority-Muslim communities.
Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) is the biggest church in Rancaekek, with approximately 250 members. The church began meeting in a house on Gradiol Street before moving to Teratai Raya Street in the year 2000.
Not a single neighbor has protested about the meetings in the current HKBP venue, according to deacon Jawadi Hutapea. When Compass visited on Sunday, there was no indication that the building was used as a church; no cars were parked outside, and singing was barely audible from the street.
"We will keep praying here," said Jawadi. "Where else can we go? Bandung and Jatinangor are too far away, and it's too expensive to travel there every Sunday." Both cities are about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Rancaekek.
"Just let us buy land at the market price, and then we will build a church," Jawadi added.
The Rev. Filemon Sirait of Gereja Pantekosta Tabernakel on Gradiol Street said his church would also continue meeting. "We have good relationships with this neighborhood, and we think there is no problem," he told Compass before the Sunday service.
On the same street, 20 people sat in plastic chairs packed tightly around a small podium in the Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia.
"Don't be afraid," homeowner Rev. Margaret (several Indonesians go by only one name) told her flock. "God will help us in this difficult situation. Don't stop praying."
Rev. Margaret said her church had been meeting in the area for 12 years with no objection from neighbors. "Last night I met with some of the neighbors, and they are afraid to speak on our behalf," she said.
A Home's 'Proper Function'
Another home normally used for church services on Teratai Raya Street was empty; no cross, no piano or podium, and no people - just five long wooden benches. "We decided to stop meeting here on January 8," said church leader Yohanes Pangarso.
The congregation, which began meeting there in July 1993, had no friction or incident until September 2004. At that time a mob from outside the area surrounded the house and demanded that church members cease services, citing the lack of a proper permit.
The church continued meeting, but after a warning from local officials, "we decided we cannot use this house anymore," Yohanes said.
Edin Hendradin, the head of the Office of National Unity and Public Protection, rejected claims that his department was closing down churches. "Please be fair," he told Compass. "What has happened in Rancaekek is not church closure; we're just restoring the proper function of private homes."
He also pointed out that the mayor of Bandung had issued a letter on September 3, 2004, prohibiting the use of private homes as places of worship, in response to protests from a local Muslim forum.
The Forum Silaturahmi Ulama dan Cendekiawan Muslim (FSUCM or Fellowship of Muslim Scholars and Intellectuals) has protested against churches since the first permit application was filed in 1993. Consistent pressure led to the forced closure of four churches in September 2004.
FSUCM members sent two further letters to local government officials on December 28, 2005 and January 9. Officials have since promised to confiscate or seal any houses used for private worship. According to bylaw No. 24/2000, offenders can also be imprisoned for six months or fined 5 million rupiah ($500).
Hendradin said the local government had tried to find a solution: "There are many factories in Rancaekek. We offered the use of a warehouse in one of the factories but it was not taken up."
Hendradin also said the developer of the housing estate was legally required to put land aside for social activities, including places of worship. But a member of Perum Perumnas Regional Jabar-Banten, the developer of Rancaekek housing complex, told Compass that land for social purposes had been handed over to the local government.
"If that is the case, I'll have to check on it," said Hendradin.
The Rev. Simon Timorason, chairman of the West Java Christian Communication Forum, said government officials rather than neighbors were responsible for the lack of church permits.
He added that the Rancaekek churches had turned down the opportunity to use the factory warehouse because it could create more problems in the future. "What if the factory workers protest?" Rev. Timorason said. "What if the owner wants to sell the land or the warehouse?"
Ideally, Rev. Timorason said, the eight churches should be allowed to buy a plot of land within the housing complex and build a joint worship facility.
Until a permanent solution can be found, the Christians of Rancaekek will meet in smaller groups for prayer.
"For the time being, this may be the only way to maintain their congregations," said Rev. Timorason.
Copyright (c) 2006 Compass Direct