Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali blamed Christians for the closure of some churches in the country, saying that they have politicized an issue that is purely administrative in nature.
Suryadharma said that Christians in the country are not the only ones who had problems getting permits to build places of worship, but they got more attention simply because they talked to the press more.
The controversial minister said that Muslims in several regions where they are members of a minority, such as in Bali, North Sulawesi, and East Nusa Tenggara, have met the same challenges when trying to get permits to build mosques.
“But they don’t talk to the press. They also don’t protest or perform prayers in front of the Presidential Palace. The requirement to obtain such a permit is only administrative, there is no need to turn it into a political issue,” Suryadharma said.
Suryadharma was referring to members of the Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) Yasmin from Bogor, West Java, and the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) Filadelfia of Bekasi, also in West Java, who have been conducting their Sunday services in front of the Presidential Palace in the past two years because local governments have sealed off their churches due to building permit disputes.
HKBP Filadelfia has been involved in a building permit dispute with local residents at Jejalen Jaya village for years as the locals refused to allow a church to be built in their neighborhood.
Representatives of the HKBP church said that they had secured permits from local government to build their church in the village, but, in 2011, the Bandung State Administrative Court in West Java overturned a ruling by the Bekasi administration which had given the go-ahead for the construction of the church.
The locals have prevented HKBP members from conducting Sunday services at the church since then.
The Bogor administration has denied a request for a building permit for GKI Yasmin, despite a ruling by the Supreme Court that upheld the rights of the congregation to open a place of worship in the area.
Suryadharma, also chairman of Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP), maintained that the 2006 joint ministerial decree, which regulates the construction of all places of worship of all religions in the country, including churches, has strict requirements simply to prevent social unrest.
The decree, which was issued by the religious affairs minister and the home minister, requires, among other things, that a congregation must have at least 90 members and have support from at least 60 locals in the vicinity of the place of worship.
“I’m very disappointed with the minister. He really doesn’t have any idea of the trouble we will have to deal with because of the decree,” Rev. Palti Panjaitan from HKBP Filadelfia said.
Separately, Bona Sigalingging of GKI Yasmin said that Suryadharma’s statement indicated the government had indirectly legitimized religious discrimination by the majority.
“The minister should have not applauded the action of those who have chosen silence after failing to get permits for their house of worship. He should have urged all government agencies to grant the people their rights to worship.”