Jakarta (AsiaNews) - A crowd of at least 1000 people burned down two Protestant churches last night in Sibuhuan (district of Padang Lawas, North Sumatra). The blaze was the culmination of tension between the faithful and the local Islamic community, tired of seeing " too many faithful and too many prayers " in a place not registered as a church.
The district chief of Padang Lawas, Basrah Lubis, said that "the attackers arrived in a flash. Their number was enormous, more or less a thousand. They were angry because the administration of the church had not responded to their demands: to change the use of buildings from 'places of prayer' to 'neutral buildings'. "
Both burned churches - two adjoining buildings - belong to the Synod of the Protestant Batak Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestant, Hkbp), and are Pentecostal churches, whose faithful belong predominantly to the ethnic Batak group. Even their liturgies, with dances and songs are in Batak language.
According to police, neither of the two buildings had a building permit and had to be considered "places of prayer" and not "churches". In Indonesia, to build a church a special legal permit (Izin Mendirikan Bangunan, IMB) is necessary. The process to get the permit is almost always hard and the Islamic community has boycotted the emergence of new churches. This lack of legal permits has become the main source of Muslims violence against Christians.
According to local witnesses, the first skirmishes took place last Christmas, when a large group of Sibuhuan residents held a sit-in protest against the existence of two churches, which has "too many members and disturbs the neighbours."
In fact, the services of the Pentecostal community are full of songs and musical instruments and it is possible that the religious holiday services were a nuisance to local members of another religion.
Conflicting with previous statements, the locals also argue against the community’s attempts to turn these "places of prayer" in "real churches". "The legal basis for declaring a church is that the number of believers is at least 60 members. But this community has only 23 members", claims Basrah Lubis.
The Hkbp community of Sibuhuan is in existence since 1982 and still can not get permission to convert buildings into real recognized churches. Lubis Basrah admits that non Christian local hinder recognition.
Now that the two buildings have been reduced to ashes, Hkbp communities have to travel to Sosa, 28 kilometres from Sibuhuan, where there are three permanent churches.
The Rev. Gomar Gultom, executive secretary of the Synod of Christian Churches in Indonesia (PGI), points out that all this anti-Christian violence occurs because some radical Islamic groups are deeply opposed to the construction of Christian places of worship and seek to restrain the public practise of other faiths. "In Indonesia, Christianity is legal - he says - but often, Christians are threatened."
Only yesterday in Jakarta, Prof. Said Agil Siradj of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest (moderate) Muslim organization in the country, submitted a report by the Wahid Institute to promote pluralism in Indonesia. The report shows that in 2009, out of about 35 cases of violation of religious freedom, 28 are against Christians. Prof. Sirad says that the violence against Christians is caused by small groups of Islamic extremists, whose knowledge of "true Islam is very poor."
He also encouraged Christians to keep good relations with Muslims, showing sensitivity towards them. Trying to build a church, all right - he said - but "it is better and wiser to discuss the plan with the local population to minimize misunderstandings."
Meanwhile tension remains high in Sibuhuan. The Pastor of the Pentecostal church has fled for fear of violence.
The Pastor of Sosa, the Rev. Rickson Nainggolan is defending his community. The fire, he says, serves to scare the Christians and stop their activities. He also points his finger at police who knew of the tensions since last Christmas and have done nothing to secure the situation.
The pastor also disputes the charge that the church did not have regular permits: "The Sibuhuan Hkbp has existed since 1982 and has its IMB. What the community has done is to" extend the existing building to accommodate the growing number of faithful. But the locals accuse us of not having the permission and have forced us to shut down our activities".
Subandriya, the local police chief, says however that the building burned yesterday "is not a church, but only a 'place of prayer'".