12/05/2013, 00.00
INDONESIA

South Sulawesi: Islamists and local authorities pull down Protestant church

Mathias Hariyadi
Pangkep District leaders order the demolition of the GKSS's only place of worship. For extremists, the building did not have the necessary permits. For the faithful, this was a "senseless operation" in violation of religious freedom. Christian activist slams the Indonesian president and government for failing to protect minorities.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - District authorities in Pangkep, in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi, tore down the place of worship used by the (Protestant) Christian Church in South Sulawesi (GKSS). Demolition took place in the early hours of the morning after local authorities issued an injunction on 28 November to stop all worship activities because the building would be closed shortly.

The faithful reacted with a mixture of dismay and disappointment, calling the authorities' decision "nonsense", especially since the (Protestant) Christian Church of South Sulawesi (GKSS) had officially applied to Pangkep District for a permit to renovate the roof of the "church".

By contrast, the authorities justified their decision to have the church demolished by claiming that it lacked the infamous building permit (Izin Mendirikan Bangunan in Indonesian), a legal requirement for building in Indonesia.

The matter is even more complicated when it comes to Christian places of worship (Catholic or Protestant) because the permit requires the explicit consent of Muslims who live in the area near the would-be Christian place of worship.

In reality, now as in the past, the permit issue was but a pretext to block new buildings or demolish existing ones.

Zakaria Ngelow, a history professor and member of the Synod of the Protestant Churches (PGI), called the demolition an act of "barbarism" because it was the only Christian place of worship in Pangkep District. The local community tried in every way to meet the legal requirements, he explained, but "so far these efforts have made ​​little progress due to local opposition."

Protestants have lived in the area since the early 1960s. In 1985, they set up their first semi- permanent place of worship inside a school. In 1989, the building became an actual house of prayer after the "verbal" approval by Pangkep's district chief.

Problems started in 2011, becoming a hot issue in August of that year when the Islamic Forum launched a massive campaign of protest, accusing the GKSS of having turned the centre into an actual church in violation of the law. The extremist group used the request made by Christians to renovate the building, especially the roof, as a pretext to attack.

For Islamists, including people the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), renovation meant a change in use, turning the building into an actual place of worship, which required a building permit and the written consent of the Muslims.

For the GKSS, no new permit was necessary because the work did not entail the construction of a new building but simply work on the roof.

When the work got under way in late November to add another five metres, the authorities quickly stepped in to stop it, and this morning the building was torn down.

In an official statement sent to AsiaNews, Woro Wahyuningtyas, head of a Christian NGO, Network Indonesia, slammed the authorities' demolition order and their "zero tolerance" towards the local religious minority.

All the efforts made by GKSS leaders to follow the rules, he added, were unsuccessful and were not taken into account by the authorities in Pangkep.

The story, he noted, is further evidence of the growing violence and abuses towards minority religious groups "without any intervention by President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono and the government."

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation (86 per cent). Although the constitution guarantees basic personal freedoms, including religious freedom, minorities are increasingly becoming the victims of violence and abuse.

Protestants make up 5.7 per cent of the population and Catholics are just over 3 per cent. Hindus represent 1.8 per cent with another 3.4 per cent professing other religions.

Sharia is enforced in Aceh, the only province in the Archipelago to do so, but Islam is becoming increasing radical and extreme in the lives of many Indonesians in several other parts of the country.

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