Bekasi. At least 300 Islamic hard-liners protested against a Christian prayer meeting in Bekasi on Sunday, in the latest show of simmering religious tensions in the area.
Police said hundreds of members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) from Pondok Timur Indah were praying in a field in Ciketing Asem on Sunday morning, when demonstrators appeared and demanded the worshipers leave.
Bekasi Police chief Sr. Comr. Imam Sugiyanto said 300 police officers were sent to secure the area. Police also demanded that the protesters disperse.
Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, head of the Christian congregation, said protesters refused to budge. They only left when prayers ended, she said.
“They even threw water bottles at us,” she said. “The protesters are known for their brutality and we find their actions so very disturbing. But I forgive them.”
However, Murhali Barja of the Bekasi branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), said the protesters believed the church group was violating the law when they held a prayer service without a permit.
The FPI is a hard-line group with a self-appointed mission to protect Islamic values in the secular country.
“We want them to cool down and secure a proper permit to conduct prayers in a church. If they follow regulations, we will not interfere,” Murhali said. “It is okay if they want to uphold their religion. Just don’t disturb ours.”
Christians in Bogor and Bekasi have been repeatedly forced to hold prayer services on the street in the absence of local permits to use their churches.
Risomas Naingolan, a church member, said they had been praying in the Ciketing Asem field since Saturday.
“We had just newspapers lined on the ground to sit on. We were in a field and not even inside a structure. I fear for the future of this country if people are not allowed to conduct religious activities,” he said.
Imam said the field could be used by the church, “but it seems local residents are not very happy with this idea.” The police chief noted that many locals “do not have as many problems with other churches” as with the HKBP.
Luspida said her church, which has about 1,500 members, bought a house in 2007 where they could hold their activities. Following protests from residents in December last year, the Bekasi municipality sequestered the house and sealed it from use.
The group allegedly continued to sneak into the building to hold services, however, prompting the local government to issue a warning. Authorities locked up the building on June 20.
Luspida said Bekasi officials had invited her to a dialogue on July 9, where Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohammad reportedly promised to let the Christian group hold church activities in Bekasi’s public areas.
She said Mochtar also agreed to send police to safeguard the church’s activities.
At a forum organized by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, Luspida said she and her congregation felt betrayed by Bekasi officials.
“We demand the Bekasi administration to let the public know that they [gave us] the green light to conduct our prayers here,” Luspida said.
The FPI and Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) in Bekasi have frequently clashed with local Christian groups over religious rights.