SURABAYA, Indonesia, May 18, 2023 (Morning Star News) – Authorities have reduced a blasphemy charge to one of mere “intrusion” for an official on western Indonesia’s Sumatra Island who broke up a worship service, sources said.
Church leaders in Indonesia said such leniency would never be granted to a Christian who broke up mosque prayers and appealed for equal treatment under Indonesian law.
Wawan Kurniawan, head of the Rukun Tetangga area of Rajabasa Jaya village, on Feb. 19 stopped the worship service of the Tabernacle of David Christian Church (Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud, or GKKD), saying it lacked a permit, sources said. The village is located in the southeast corner of Sumatra in Bandar Lampung Regency, Lampung Province.
The Lampung High Prosecutor’s Office stated that instead of charging him with violating the blasphemy law, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine, Wawan would be charged only with intruding into the church compound without permission, which carries a punishment of less than a year in prison and a US$30 fine, according to Kompas.com.
The prosecutor’s office said the due process of law would be carried out in the near future, according to Kompas.com, though many Christians doubt authorities would follow through due to the influence of Muslim extremist groups.
Charges may have been reduced in part because Wawan reached a settlement with the GKKD church on Feb. 23, said the Rev. Henrek Lokra, executive secretary of justice and peace bureau of the Communion of Christian Churches (Persatuan Gereja Indonesia or PGI). Wawan, Bandar Lampung Sub-district officials and other local authorities initiated the settlement.
The agreement called for Wawan to publicly ask the GKKD congregation for forgiveness and for both parties to forego legal action against each other, leaving any prosecution to the government, which Christians believe is biased in favor of Islamists.
The agreement also called for the GKKD congregation to accept Wawan’s apology and granted the church a temporary permit to continue using its building for worship.
In spite of the settlement, the PGI’s Pastor Lokra said problems remain.
“The government in general and the legal authorities in particular should maintain people’s trust, the trust among the citizens, that their voice is heard and the problem solved accordingly,” he told Morning Star News in a text message.
Lukas Sutrisno, a church planter in Magelang, Central Java, said authorities should consistently enforce the law.
“The whole process itself is incomprehensible – dismissing [breaking up] the Sunday service is a crime which should be punished,” Sutrisno told Morning Star News. “It’s hard to imagine such a case happening to the majority religion – I mean, what would happen if Christians dismissed Muslim prayers?”
Such disruption of church services could reoccur unless the government applies consistent enforcement policies, he said.
“The law authorities, I think, should treat the citizens equally before the law,” Sutrisno said.
Lampung Police spokesman Zahwani Pandra Arsyad said that Wawan had been briefly arrested in February shortly after the disruption, and that investigators in March concluded that he had “fulfilled the elements to be named a suspect” under blasphemy laws, Kompas.com reported on March 16.
Police detained Wawan Kurniawan on March 22 under Indonesia’s blasphemy law, according to Kompas.com. But the head of Information and Legal Section of the Lampung High Prosecutor’s Office, Made Agus Putra, said last week that the Public Prosecution Team at the Bandar Lampung Prosecutor’s Office on May 11 released Wawan, as the charges had been reduced and his wife and legal counsel requested a detention suspension, according to Kompas.com.
Various groups in Lampung Province launched demonstrations against Wawan’s March 22 arrest.
Protestors at the Lampung High Prosecutor’s Office on March 23 demanded his release, according to Kumparan.com, and demonstrators from the Lampung Move Alliance on April 10 amassed with the same purpose at the Lampung Regional Police Headquarters compound in Bandar Lampung, Lampung.com reported.
Demonstration coordinator Gunawan Pharikesit said Wawan was only carrying out his duties when he dismissed the GKKD Sunday service.
“Wawan Kurniwan has just carried out his job in regard to religious service regulation as stipulated in the Joint Decree of Two Ministers (Surat Keputusan Bersama Dua Menteri), which has been criminalized,” he told Lampung.com.
Religious freedom advocate Ary Permadi, widely known as Abu Janda, criticized the demonstrations.
“The demonstrations show that barbarity has been supported by barbarity again,” Janda said in a video on his Instagram account on March 30. “Yesterday we saw the HTI sleeper cells reappearing among the Lampung demonstration participants, demanding the [disruptor] of religious worship be released.”
Janda said the suspect who disrupted the worship service could be charged with multiple articles of Indonesian civil law, including Article 175 for obstructing worship, punishable by up to one year and four months in prison; Article 167 for trespassing, punishable by nine months in prison; and Article 156 for blasphemy, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Appeal for Help
PGI General Secretary Jacklevyn F. Manuputty had appealed for government action soon after the service was disrupted.
“PGI understands that there are rules that must be met in order to build a house of worship,” Manuputty said in a Feb. 20 press statement. “Even so, incomplete permits should not be an excuse for forcibly stopping an ongoing worship service, let alone since the dissolution was carried out in a very undignified way and caused terror and fear.”
Manuputty added that the state’s authority would fade if it allowed such incidents to continue, and that public trust would also decrease.
Wawan previously said church Pastor Naek Siregar on Dec. 10, 2016, signed a statement pledging not to use the building until the church had a permit, according to IDNTimes.com. The outlet said the church has not met requirements to obtain a permit, but Parlin Sihombing, chairman of the GKKD Church Construction Committee, told IDNTimes.com the congregation met requirements in their application.
The church, whose building was constructed in 2009, applied for a permit for a place of worship in 2014, but officials have not responded, he said. He said the 2014 application included the approval of 75 area residents; 60 are required under Indonesia’s Joint Ministerial Decree of 2006. Parlin Sihombing said the number of congregation members has reached 100, also exceeding the required 90 members under the 2006 decree.
Indonesia ranked 33rd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Indonesian society has adopted a more conservative Islamic character, and churches involved in evangelistic outreach are at risk of being targeted by Islamic extremist groups, according to Open Doors’ WWL report.
“If a church is seen to be preaching and spreading the gospel, they soon run into opposition from Islamic extremist groups, especially in rural areas,” the report noted. “In some regions of Indonesia, non-traditional churches struggle to get permission for church buildings, with the authorities often ignoring their paperwork.”
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