Suburbs a Hotbed for Religious Strife

Peace is a word defined differently by certain religious communities and the Bogor administration, according to controversial Islamic sect Ahmadiyah.

“We had already erected steel pillars and the base framework for our mosque when members of certain communities began to protest its construction. The Bogor administration backed them, and requested us to stop building the mosque so that there would be peace in Bogor,” Ahmadiyah spokesman Mubarik told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.

Mubarik said the group ceased construction, but hundreds of public order officers in Bogor on July 12 demolished the foundations to make sure the mosque would not be completed.

Residents had objected to the plan to build the mosque in Cisaladah village, claiming it violated a 2006 decree by the ministries of religious affairs and home affairs on the establishment of houses of worship, which require the approval of local residents before they can be built.

The Ahmadiyah case is but one in a number of incidents targeting minority religions in Bogor, a city that sits just outside Jakarta. But it is not just happening in Bogor. The past year has seen churches closed, Christian events raided and a call to bring a city’s bylaws in line with Shariah law – all in cities neighboring the country’s capital.

Radicalizing the Suburbs

The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a human rights organization, says what is happening in Bogor is part of a radicalization phenomenon in suburban regions, including neighboring Bekasi and Tangerang.

“When these attacks were becoming frequent in 2007, we assumed that they were the workings of the PKS [Prosperous Justice Party, an Islam-based political party],” said Ismail Hasani, a Setara researcher.

“But then we studied it more and we learned it was something else. Have you heard of the concept ‘people from the villages besieging cities?’ ”

According to Setara’s research, at least 291 acts of religious violence occurred last year across 12 provinces – West Java had the highest number with 57 incidents, followed by Jakarta with 38. Both Bogor and Bekasi are within West Java.

“These incidents illustrate the political motives of certain organizations to gain supporters in suburban regions bordering Jakarta,” Ismail said. “These mass organizations are frequently used for political reasons. For instance, approaching regional elections, mass organizations are used to win more votes.”

The destruction of the planned Ahmadiyah mosque stemmed from a promise made by a district head in Bogor prior to his election.

Theophilus Bela, secretary general of Indonesian Committee of Religions for Peace, said freedom to worship was being restricted more openly with help from local governments.

“Building permits are an excuse here to shut down churches or to freeze prayer services in homes,” Theo told the Globe.

“Christians are of many types, including Pentacostal, the Huria Christian Protestants, Catholics and many others. The government must understand this that each religion has sects and each has a different need. They must be accommodated.”

Aside from the characteristics of the local governments, attitudes among residents in these suburbs may also help explain why hard-line groups thrive there.

The Rev. Palti Panjaitan from HKBP (Batak Christian Protestant Church) Filadelfia, whose permit was denied by the government because residents rejected it, claimed that local Islamic leaders told residents they would not receive religious services unless they opposed the church.

“The local residents are mostly field workers and elementary school graduates; they got intimidated easily,” he said.

A Bekasi resident who lives near the proposed site of the HKBP Filadelfia church told the Globe she did not object to a church being built there, “as long as they did not try to Christianize our children.”

The changing demographics of these cities could also play a part. Palti acknowledged that his congregation members were all migrants from North Sumatra who moved to Bekasi starting in the 1980s.

“Our population grew, as Bekasi is in the outskirts of Jakarta and there are a lot of factories in the area where most people work,” he said.

Johny Nelson Simanjuntak, a commissioner for monitoring and investigations at the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said a combination of factors could be contributing to radicalization.

“There is a lack of critical thinking and even weaker law enforcement in these areas. It is growing like an epidemic,” he told the Globe.

Weak Government Response

Regardless of the reasons behind this phenomenon, many are worried over the apparent lack of action to address it.

“The result of the recent congress in Bekasi is a big threat to the nation. That is open provocation,” Johny said. He was referring to a recent conservative Islamic congress that discussed a plan to bring Bekasi more in line with its interpretation of Islam.

The congress also called for the creation of a militant youth group within each mosque to fight the ongoing “Christianization” of the city.

Johny added that Komnas HAM had received requests for mediation from several congregations whose churches had been shut down or had building permits rejected. The most recent to be denied was GKI Yasmin church in Bogor.

“So far we still haven’t heard any response from Bogor’s mayor, but apparently the Bogor Police are insisting on investigating the church for forging residents’ signatures, even though some residents have admitted that they retracted their approval under intimidation,” Johny said.

The problem with not reining in hard-line groups is that the newly converted are often more radical and conservative than those who have studied the religion for a long period, extremism expert Noor Huda Ismail said.

“Those people used to be drunkards and thugs and they never knew how it felt being a minority,” he said.

Noor Huda added that moderate Islamic organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – the largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia – were overwhelmed by their own size and out of touch with their rank and file.

“This void was then filled by FPI [Islamic Defenders Front] and other similar organizations,” Noor Huda said.

Habib Salim bin Umar Alatas, FPI’s Jakarta leader, defended the group by saying it did not act rashly. On the closure of churches, Habib Salim said that the FPI would look at the permits along with reactions of locals in the neighborhoods.

“We do not act blindly. We act on information and we report to local authorities. After informing local authorities, if they still don’t do anything, then we will,” Habib Salim said, adding that the FPI’s conduct in the field was a warning to the government for neglecting the people’s demands.

“There is just no excuse for the Ahmadiyahs because it is our commitment to disband the Ahmadiyahs. Don’t say we are against churches. Near our headquarters in Petamburan, West Jakarta, there is a Bethel Church. We live in harmony with those churchgoers.”

But Robin Hutasoit, who attends HKBP Pondok Timur Indah in Bekasi, which was locked down in June, said he had not observed this reported harmony.

“When I first moved to Bekasi in 2006, this church had been attacked by an unidentified group of people. We were praying, and they were throwing stones,” Robin told the Globe.

He said that he had never experienced that sort of “primitive behavior” when he was living in North Jakarta.

“I lived as neighbors with people of different religions in Tanjung Priok [North Jakarta]. I have never faced a problem like now I face in Bekasi. We could pray in peace in Priok.”

Anti-Christian Actions, January to June 2010

Jan. 3: 300 people from an unidentified group close access to the HKBP Filadelfia Church in Bekasi over absence of a building permit.

Feb. 5: HKBP Church in Karawang Timur, West Java, sealed forcibly due to absence of permit.

Feb. 7: 100 people protest outside the Pondok Timur Indah Church in Bekasi, saying it is not a house of worship.

Feb. 15: A mass demonstration involving hardline Islamic groups shuts down the Galileo Church in Bekasi, saying that its presence was making locals restless.

Feb. 28: A forum of subdistrict leaders demands the Pondok Timur Indah church in Bekasi stop its activities.

Mar. 11: The Bogor administration, accompanied by members of the Indonesian Muslim Communication Forum, seals off the GKI Yasmin Church after revoking its permit, on account of locals feeling restless.

Apr. 4: Subdistrict chief and police chief of Parung in Bogor warn churchgoers of St. Joannes Baptista Catholic Church to stop its religious activities because locals did not want Good Friday to be celebrated.

Apr. 27: An arson attack occurs on a resort project owned by Christian education foundation BPK Penabur.

Jun. 20: Pondok Timur Indah church in Bekasi is sealed off.

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