12/20/2010, 00.00
INDONESIA

Catholics in Bogor (West Java) not allowed to celebrate Christmas Mass

Mathias Hariyadi
The authorities ban all Christian activities, citing as their reason the lack of a proper place of worship, which Catholics have been demanding for years without success. Increasingly, radical Muslims are becoming intolerant towards Christian groups.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Bogor authorities have banned all public activities or celebrations associated with Christmas, including Christmas Mass, at Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Parung, Tulang Kuning, Bogor Regency (West Java Province). The official ban was issued in a letter that restated the usual reasons, namely the lack of a building permit for a place of worship (Izin Mendirikan Bangunan in Indonesian). Without it, even praying on Church-owned land is prohibited.

In Indonesia, permits are required for any type of building, but when it comes to Christian places of worship, they are issued only after 60 residents living near the would-be church have agreed in writing to the project and the local Inter-faith Dialogue Group has given its approval.   

In this particular case, because the application has not yet been approved after a long period of time, worshippers have taken to meeting under a tent or in a restaurant. Complicating matters, local authorities have interpreted the law very restrictively, going so far as to prevent Christians from even meeting in public. Now local Catholics are at a loss because they cannot figure out how to interpret the ban.

“We still have no idea how to respond such demands, despite the urgency to find a peaceful solution that would allow Catholics to profess their faith at Christmas,” Fr Gatot, the local parish priest, told AsiaNews.

The situation is particularly worrying because of past episodes of violence. Some parishioners, who asked their names be withheld, told AsiaNews that the ban was preceded by repeated threats from local Muslim extremists, who are bent on preventing any Christian ceremony in a public place.

The fear is that radical groups might take advantage of the ban to carry out violent acts in case Catholics hold celebrations in a public place, under a tent for example, or in a restaurant in neighbouring villages, which they have done in the past.

In 2005, local hard-line Muslim groups disrupted Easter celebrations. More problems arose in 2008, when hundreds of radical Muslims blocked access to church-owned land. On that occasion too, Easter celebrations were interrupted. Nonetheless, Good Friday and Palm Sunday services were successfully pulled off without an incident.

Parung is home to at least 3,000 Catholics. The local diocese owns 7,500 m2 of land where it wants to build a church. However, Muslim extremists have tried to prevent them.

In April this year, radical Muslims stopped Catholics from holding Easter Mass, but parishioners at the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church are not alone in experiencing such violence. The congregation of Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI, better known as Yasmin Church) have also gone through the same thing.

Although they were able to celebrate Mass on Easter Sunday, they had their building permit withdrawn on 14 February 2008. Local authorities issued a closure order for their church, because of protests by Muslim extremists.

In 2009, the Administrative Court, Indonesia’s highest civil court, ruled in favour of the Yasmin Church, which had successfully sued the municipality and won the right to keep its place of worship open.

Its victory was short-lived. On 11 March this year, the municipality closed it down permanently under pressure from Muslim extremists. As a protest, the faithful began celebrating Mass in the street (pictured).

Such cases illustrate what is happening across Indonesia. Non-Muslim religions are victims of a wave of intolerance fed by radical Muslims. Increasingly, it is taking on a violent form because local authorities are not taking decisive action to stop it.

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