On Easter Sunday, 2023, the city administration of Bogor, Indonesia, inaugurated a new building for the Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) Yasmin. It was a major ceremony, attended by senior politicians such as Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD, Home Minister Tito Karnavian, and National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) chairwoman Atnike Nova Sigiro.
But what might otherwise have been a celebratory event has instead revealed and produced stark divisions in the local congregation and in the country itself. Given the local government’s illegal and unjust dealings with the church, many church members refused to attend the inauguration or worship in the new building.
This was not merely a local event – this church has received international coverage for at least 15 years, not least because it has become a microcosm of the conflicting currents of religious tolerance, religious harmony, and religious freedom in Indonesia. Hence the presence of senior cabinet ministers at the celebration.
Obtaining permission to build a church in Indonesia is difficult. The church needs a particular permit, known as Izin Mendirikan Bangunan (IMB). The Joint Ministerial Decree of 2006 (SKB) makes these permits very difficult for many new churches. The applicants must obtain 90 signatures of approval from prospective congregational members – even before they have a home for a local congregation.
They must also obtain 60 signatures from neighboring households of different religions. Some of these neighbors may themselves be intolerant, but a greater problem is that with rumors of possible church construction, radical Islamic groups mobilize their members in the area, spread false rumors among the locals, or intimidate them into opposing the church construction. After all this provocation, local officials may delay indefinitely or refuse to respond at all.
But, still, after all these hurdles, many churches do get built. When I raised the Yasmin church issue with a senior official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, he told me, “Yes, there are problems, which we regret and try to counter. But please also remember that Indonesia has almost 70,000 churches that are open and usually thriving.”
GKI Yasmin started its application process in 2003, completed all the forms and surmounted the other hurdles, and in 2006 received a building permit. The then-mayor of Bogor, Diani Budiarto, attended the groundbreaking ceremony himself.
All looked well. However, in 2008, after protests from some locals, Diani froze the church’s permit. Faced with this illegal act, the church challenged the city’s decision in court, eventually going through many levels of appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Indonesia, which in 2010 ruled in the church’s favor.
The response of the Bogor administration to this decision by the country’s highest court was worse than nothing. First, it ignored the decision and then, in 2011, it revoked the church’s building permit entirely.
Faced with a local government spurning a Supreme Court ruling, the central government did nothing, at least in terms of public action.
Meanwhile, the church protested and began to hold its weekly services outdoors near the presidential palace in the heart of the capital, Jakarta, 56 kilometers to the north. Their passive protests took place before embassies, expensive shopping malls, and elite hotels, in full view of visiting businessmen, politicians, and journalists. This gained widespread attention and subsequently any overview of religious freedom issues in Indonesia would be sure to cover the Yasmin church, even though there are greater religious problems in the country.
Meanwhile, there were ongoing negotiations with the Bogor city administration. In 2015, a new mayor, Bima Arya, who had been elected in 2014, proposed relocating the church to a new site. The new mayor sought reconciliation and “apologized to the whole congregation because they have to wait 15 years,” and he “thanked them for their patience during the very uneasy and challenging time.” At Christmas, he shook hands with every churchgoer.
In August 2021, the Bogor administration granted a new building permit for the new site, 1.5 km from the original church site. This culminated in the Easter Sunday ceremony, which showed the divisions in the congregation.
These events reveal the tensions in Indonesia’s deeply religious society. While religious freedom, religious rights, religious tolerance, and religious harmony are often treated as very similar things, almost as synonyms, in reality they can pull in very different directions.
The congregants who refused to celebrate the new building had the law on their side. For 20 years they had fought peacefully to establish their church, and the highest court in the land had backed them. They had every right to the original site. If they give up now and accept the relocated church, it could give carte blanche to other local governments to follow Bogor’s example and bow to the mob rather than the law.
Other congregants countered that, as one senior Christian leader told me, “Yes, we have a right, but do we need always to demand our right? Is not harmony, respect for the other, saving face and, yes, forgiveness, also important?” This stance not only draws from strands of Christian theology but also reflects deep Indonesian cultural and political sensibilities.
The Indonesian government has established Forums for Religious Harmony (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama, FKUB) throughout the country. Each forum helps facilitate dialogue between religious groups and, when there are tensions, seek to resolve them. They are often very good institutions doing important work, not only trying to resolve disputes but to head them off before problems arise.
But note that their overall goals is harmony, not justice or freedom. If two parties are in dispute, a forum will seek to calm them and encourage compromise or tolerance to reestablish harmony in the community. But this might downplay the actual justice and legality of some claims, wherein one party has been wronged and is being given no redress.
Indonesia has conflicting mores with respect to religion and other possible sources of social and political tension. In accord with international law, it is obliged to uphold religious freedom even if the exercise of that freedom offends others. It also wants to uphold its culture’s deeply rooted commitment to religious harmony and tolerance, even if that mean that genuine religious freedom might be curtailed in the name of social peace.
There is no simple solution to these competing standards. Many in the West could use a good dose of the need for harmony in order to counter excessive individualism. But Indonesia needs to take religious rights and freedom more seriously even as it seeks to maintain peace in a multireligious society.