11/28/2007, 00.00
INDONESIA

After 40 years a Catholic Church in West Java is forced to close

Benteng Reges
Christ’s Peace Church has been active since 1968 now local Muslims are contesting the use of the buildings for religious purposes. With the backing of police and local politicians the extremists have won their battle: the parish does not have the legal permit and therefore must close down. For years the church had sought to obtain the permit without success, gaining only a staunch refusal from the government.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Once again in the name of the law, religious freedom – one of the rights guaranteed by the National Constitution – has been violated.  It happened on November 23 in South Duri, West Jakarta, where a group of Muslims with the backing of police and local politicians forced the Catholic parish of Christ’s Peace Church to stop all religious activity.  The pretext is always the same: it does not have the legal permit to build a place of worship.

Christ’s Peace Parish Church has at least 4,000 parishioners and holds three week-end services. The church activity has existed since 1968. Contacted by AsiaNews parish priest Fr. Matthew Widyalestari MSC, confirmed the episode which also made headlines in Indonesian press: “For now, we are asked by them and also the local government officials to halt all kind of activities for ‘the sake of the community’”.

The episode

It all began with the plan to build a new parish church.  Last week officials visited the parish priest to ask whether there were plans to enlarge the small church and stated that the priest did not possess a permit to build a place of worship but only a house.  The conflict continued to heat up until locals calling themselves the Cooperation Forum for Mosque, Prayer Rooms and Koranic Recital Group of Duri Selatan, began to speculate on the legality of the parish, which “use as a multi-function room run by the Mother of Sacred Heart Foundation as a church”. Until November 23 when after Friday prayers some 70 enraged Muslims, rallied outside the parish shouting “Allah is great” and demanding its closure. A meeting ensued between the protesters, Catholic personnel, police and local authorities. “They forcibly asked us to sign a document agreeing to halt all activity – said Fr. Widyolestari - if we rejected the proposal then they said they would not be responsible if vandalism took place”. They also wanted to force the removal of all religious symbols, “But we strongly rejected the idea”, the priest adds. In the afternoon, an official letter arrived from Tambura district, imposing the suspension of all religious activities.

The difficulty of practising the faith

Father Widyolestari acknowledged that the area was a designated residential area. The chapel started out in 1968 as a multi-function room of a Catholic school run by the Mother of Sacred Heart Foundation. As the Catholic congregation in the area grew, the space turned into a small church. In 1998, the Former Governor agreed to change the allocation (of the space) from residential to social functional. Father Widyolestari said that he had submitted all the requirements needed to apply for a church building permit, which has punctually met with rejection without any explanation as to why.  The chapel has been very open to the community and used as an aid centre during emergencies the most recent during the February floods, when the chapel gave help to affected residents.

In Indonesia a new ministerial decree issued by Religious Affairs Ministry and the Home Affairs Minister last year sought to put an end to episodes of violence against domestic churches who are struggling to get their permits under the new ruling.  But attacks have continued and Christian communities have been forced to continue their activities in states of semi illegality, with the risk of have to totally renounce the practice of their faith.

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