"We feel as if we are fighting a giant and can't fight it alone," Pastor Palti Panjaitan of the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant church told International Christian Concern (ICC) late last month. Pastor Palti is one of many pastors in Bekasi, a city of about 2.5 million just a few miles south of Indonesia's capital Jakarta, that has seen his congregation forced out of their church building by an angry mob in recent years. "They erected signs saying 'Jesus is a dog' and 'Kill the Christians' outside of our church. Eventually the mob started throwing dirt, stones, and all sorts of garbage at us." Yet the situation with Pastor Palti's church, which has been campaigning to be allowed back into their original building for nearly ten months, is not an isolated one in Bekasi.
According to Pastor Gagang, the head of the Christian Communication Forum in Bekasi, at least five churches have been driven from their buildings by pressure from radical Muslim groups in 2012 alone. "There are two hundred Islamic leaders in Bekasi who have an agreement with a current political candidate to crackdown on churches if he wins election," Pastor Gagang told ICC. "There is a high risk for churches in Bekasi thanks to a high concentration of Islamic radicals."
The problem lies with the difficulty in obtaining a building permit and the propensity of local government officials to succumb to pressure from radical Islamic groups, according to many of the pastors interviewed by ICC. When mobs start chanting outside of their churches, the pretext is almost always the lack of a proper building permit.
Though required, the cost of obtaining a permit, pegged by the local government at about 150 million Indonesian rupiah ($15,625 USD), can actually run as high as 1.2 billion rupiah ($125,000 USD), say the pastors. In a country with an average income per capita of just under five thousand U.S. dollars per year, this is an impossibly large sum for most churches.
Even if churches are able to raise the funds for a permit the process can take years and there is no guarantee of approval. Many of the pastors who spoke with ICC applied for permits years ago and never received a response. Some, like Pastor Palti, have actually obtained a permit but found it to be useless in persuading radical groups to allow them back into their buildings. In Pastor Palti's case, even an Indonesian Supreme Court decision in his church's favor has failed to convince either the radical groups or the local government to allow his congregation back onto the property they purchased almost six years ago.
The wider issue of attacks by religious extremists on churches isn't a new one. The Jakarta Christian Communication Forum has recorded at least 700 attacks against Christian churches in Indonesia since the end of theregime in 1998. The issue, say most activists, lies with the federal government's unwillingness to address the problem.
Most of the pastors interviewed by ICC were exhausted by their constant struggle to find a safe place for members to meet. Even those who have quietly agreed to Islamist to relocate have found their new location to be acceptable for only a matter of months before protests begin again. Some congregations are sharing a single building with as many as six other churches. This makes everything chaotic, say the pastors, yet they aren't sure what else to do.
With little hope that their own government will intervene, many are asking for the United States to get involved. "If I can plea with you, please ask the American government to put pressure on Indonesia to actually protect religious freedom," said Pastor Palti to ICC.
Not long after making this request, Pastor Palti's church tried once again to hold a service in their old building. They were met by protestors with loud speakers who threatened to attack the church. Police eventually told a resilient Pastor Palti he would have to cancel his service once again.
Editor's note: ICC is currently working with Pastor Palti and other churches in the Jakarta/Bekasi area that have been evicted from their buildings. To learn more, sign up for ICC's newsletter at www.persecution.org.
For interviews, contact Aidan Clay, Regional Manager for Southeast Asia: RM-SEAsia@persecution.org