Catholics on Riau Island in legal battle against Islamic extremists over church project (photos)
by Mathias Hariyadi

Built in 1928, St Joseph’s Catholic Church needs to be renovated and enlarged. Originally it could accommodate 100 people, but now it has more than 700 members. Despite having all the permits, the project is opposed by a small group of young Muslims who threaten action against public order. For the first time, Indonesian Catholics openly criticise local authorities for their incompetence and inability to uphold the country’s values.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Catholic leaders have decided to fight against Islamic extremists and assert their community’s right to rebuild a church dedicated to Saint Joseph in Tanjung Balai, Karimun, on Riau Island, near Sumatra.

Local Catholics are critical of Karimun district chief who, bowing to extremists, has turned against the project even though it has all the required permits.

Their action is perhaps a first for Indonesian Catholics as they openly criticise local authorities for their incompetence and inability to uphold the country’s values ​​of freedom of religion and expression.

Legal permit

Ramesko Purba, a spokesman for the St Joseph Catholic community in Karimun, told media yesterday that they have all the legal papers issued by local authorities to go ahead with the church project.

They include a letter[*] of support and favourable recommendation by local village elders dated 24 May 2019, the required building permit (IMB[†]), and the papers for the project signed by the district authority[‡], dated 2 October 2019.

As soon as the building permit was issued, some local Islamic radicals spoke out against it, demanding that it be dropped in the public interest. Abdul Latif, a local member of the opposition, is one of them. Latif is also a former dean of the University of Karimun.

"The construction project [of the Catholic church] does not bring any benefit to the population of Karimun,” he said. “We believe the project cannot be done until we make our pressure felt.”

Latif has also threatened to stage protests, stop traffic and cause other unspecified problems. In his view, “the construction site is located in the centre of Karimun. So many 'problems' are likely to happen. If the church is moved elsewhere, then it's fine.”

The Catholic response

In an official statement, Ramesko Purba, on behalf of the St Joseph community, stressed that:

1. the continuation of the project is legal since it has the recommendations of the village leaders and a building permit;

2. many reports and rumours have been deliberately made up by some local Islamic extremists, including some from the United Islamic Society Forum (FUIB)[§], such as the claim that the “church bell tower will be much higher than the home of the Karimun district chief". In fact, the bell tower will only be 11.75 metres, whereas the house is 12 metres high.

Purba added that Christians have deep respect for the Islamic community. “As we explained to Karimun officials, there will be no symbol or ornament outside the church; no cross, no statue, no image of Mary will be displayed visible outside the church.”

This decision was taken reluctantly because it will make the building “similar to a gym or a conference hall”; however, “we accept this to minimise protest. For the Church, this is truly a test of humility.”

Muslim majority and Christian minority

The statement goes on to explain that St Joseph’s Catholic Church was built in 1928 and consecrated in 1935, years before Indonesia became an independent country and decades before the home of the Karimun district chief was built.

“What we want to do is not build a new church, but renovate the existing one so that it has adequate capacity. If we continue worshipping [in it], there are potential dangers since the construction is already very old.

“The original capacity of this church in 1935 was only 100 people. Today we have over 700 members. During high holy days, like Christmas and Easter, hundreds of people are forced to stand, patiently, outside the building. In case of sudden heavy rains, they have scatter.”

The city of Karimun has four sub-districts with only one Catholic church in the city centre and a chapel on the outskirts, in Tebing, whilst the Catholic community now numbers 1,800 members.

Catholic contribution to social peace

Unlike Abdul Latif, the Christian community has never created "problems” to local residents. On the contrary, it has made an important contribution to social development.

 “For several years,” the statement reads, “we have kept a low profile and have submitted to social pressures. But now, on this fundamental issue, we shall no longer do so.

"Catholicism is a religion that actively promotes peace and social tolerance, as the pontiff said repeatedly. He is an international figure who promotes peace and love. This is our way of life, recognised all over the world ".

Criticising the district chief

Muslim extremists have promised to continue protesting if the building permit is not revoked today.

"We are convinced,” the statement says, “that the security forces will not meet their demands. Indonesia is a country based on the rule of law.”

"We are critical of Karimun district, which appears to be subservient to the demands of protesters. The local authority seems to have taken a step back from its previous commitment, when it asked us to stop church construction for three months, that is until 25 January 2020.”

"The district chief of Karimun has shown slowness and laziness in countering the attacks by [church] opponents, consisting of no more than 20 people, some underage.”

Speaking to AsiaNews today, Archbishop Sunarka OFM of Pangkalpinang gave his full support to the position taken by Catholic leaders on the hot issue of new churches.

The Diocese of Pangkalpinang is located on Bangka island and covers two provinces: Bangka-Belitung and Riau Islands, plus the Indragiri Hilir district in Riau province.

Photo credit: St Joseph Parish Church in Karimun

[*] 650/TR-DISPUPR/V/74/2019.

[†] Izin Mendirikan Bangunan.

[‡] 0386/DPMPTSP/IMB-81/2019.

[§] Forum Umat Islam Bersatu.