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'It's Our Right': Christian Congregation In Indonesia Fights To Worship In Its Church

Paulus stands in the shell of the Yasmin church. He hopes to one day be able to practice his religion in safety.
Claire Harbage NPR
Paulus stands in the shell of the Yasmin church. He hopes to one day be able to practice his religion in safety.

'It's Our Right': Christian Congregation In Indonesia Fights To Worship In Its Church

The city of Bogor, on the outskirts of greater Jakarta, is a conservative Muslim area with a strong Christian minority. To open a church here, Christian groups must meet a lot of requirements, including getting permission from Muslim authorities.

Starting in 2003, the Taman Yasmin Indonesia Christian Church, also known as the GKI Yasmin Church, got all the necessary legal permits. But vocal Muslim citizens opposed construction of the church and pressured the local government to cancel the permits.


The local government acquiesced to the demands. But the church group went to court, and won. On an appeal, they won again. Finally, the case went all the way to Indonesia's Supreme Court — where the church group won a third time, in 2010. But to this day, the congregation can't worship there.

Alex Paulus, a Christian leader in Bogor, says when the group started building the church, his children were still in elementary school.

"But now," he says, "they already finished the university."

Early on, the church was sealed by local authorities, but the community held Sunday school classes on the street in front of it. That left them vulnerable to attacks by hard-liners.

"They yell at us, shouting at us, saying, 'Kill them, burn them!' " says Paulus. "So it terrified the kids."


Indonesia, with its mix of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian citizens, has long had a reputation as a country that embraces religious diversity. Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, sees things differently.

"This is just a statement coming from people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, all Western leaders who want to praise Indonesia for various reasons — sometimes justified, sometimes just for lip service," he says.

In fact, Harsono says, the Bogor church represents an alarming example of Indonesia's growing intolerance.

The court ruling in favor of the church has been settled for seven years. But Bogor's mayor continues to ignore the ruling. Today, the church compound remains closed off. It is illegal to go inside. A metal sheet blocks the entrance.

We were able to take a quick look inside and found a bare frame with a roof but no insulation, no walls — just a skeleton of a building. In the middle of the dirt floor, there is an altar with a gold cross painted on it. Hanging on the walls, there are little wreaths with ribbons from a 2010 Christmas service, when the community was forced by a local mob to leave the church building.

At a mosque in Bogor, people say the Muslim community is divided over the church. Hizbut Tahrir, an Islamic group that Indonesia's government recently banned for its extremist positions, had encouraged protests against the church on social media. Mohammed Ismail Yusanto, the banned group's spokesman, lives in Bogor.

"Indonesia is very, very tolerant," he says. "I think too tolerant in some cases."

Yusanto brushes off the Bogor church story as one isolated case.

But in fact, Harsono says, 1,000 or so churches have been shut in Indonesia in the past decade.

Meanwhile, thousands of mosques of a persecuted minority sect, the Ahmedi, have also been shuttered — another sign of growing intolerance, say human rights advocates.

For Paulus, the numbers are less important than the personal question of one's own right to worship.

As he stands among the weeds and mosquitoes in the shell of the church, he says a prayer for the church to open. He is determined to keep fighting.

"Because we have permission," he says. "It's our right."

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