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(New York) – President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia should order local governments not to demolish houses of worship and should revoke discriminatory regulations on religious structures, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 21, 2013, in Bekasi, a suburb of Jakarta, the local government used an excavator vehicle to demolish the new red-brick structure of the Batak Protestant Christian Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, HKBP). Officials ordered the church demolished for lack of a building permit on the demand of the Islamic People’s Forum in Taman Sari (Forum Umat Islam Taman Sari), a militant Islamist organization.

“The government’s demolition of a church in Bekasi not only violates religious freedom, but it will fan the flames of religious division in Indonesia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “President Yudhoyono needs to reverse the decision, compensate the congregation, and publicly order an end to the destruction of houses of worship.”

A video of the demolition shows church members crying and screaming, begging local officials not to demolish their church while hundreds of police and army officers guarded the area. Muslim militants standing outside the church cheered the excavator and shouted Quranic verses when the building was demolished.

The demolition of the HKBP church appears to be the first because of protests by Islamist organizations.

Christian churches in traditionally Muslim-majority areas in Indonesia have found it increasingly difficult to obtain permits.  As a result, Christian groups have expressed concern about the possibility of additional demolitions. In Bekasi alone, more than 20 HKBP churches operate without building permits.

The Bekasi local government has even refused to issue a building permit to HKBP Filadelfia, which the Indonesian Supreme Court ruled has met all of the legal requirements for construction.

“Demolishing a religious minority’s house of worship because of opposition from the majority creates a dangerous precedent,” Adams said. “The government may be unleashing forces that it will not be able to control.”

Indonesian regulations on the construction of houses of worship discriminate against religious minorities. A 1969 decree authorizes local governments to require that “a house of worship may only be built with the approval of a regional administrator,” such as the provincial governor or a regent. It also states that “if necessary, the head of the government could ask the opinion of religious organizations and clerics” before a house of worship is built.

While such regulations ostensibly apply to all religions, in practice they have generally been used to discriminate against religious minorities. Christians, Indonesia’s largest religious minority, have faced extensive difficulties in securing church construction permits in some parts of the country. Especially problematic are areas where there has been recent demographic change, such as an increase in the Christian population in traditionally Muslim areas, including West Java, where Bekasi is located. In some cases, approvals for the construction of churches have taken between at least 10 years and as long as 20.

The Communion of Churches in Indonesia, the umbrella organization of Protestant churches, has repeatedly asked the government to repeal the 1969 decree. In March 2006, Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni and Home Minister Mohammad Ma’ruf amended the 1969 decree by issuing a new regulation that essentially permits regional governments to continue to license the construction of houses of worship.

The decree says that the construction of houses of worship should be based on “real needs” and “composition of the population” in the area. A permit for constructing a house of worship requires: the names and ID cards of at least 90 congregants, a support letter from at least 60 other local residents, and written recommendations from the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Religious Harmony Forum (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama, FKUB), a consultative body of local religious leaders.

Human Rights Watch has documented the closure of more than 30 churches in Java and Sumatra, and a mosque in Kupang, between 2010 and 2012. Muslim militants have invoked the 2006 decree to seek to justify vandalizing, and at times burning, what they call “illegal churches.”

Since Yudhoyono took office in December 2004, there has been an increase in violence targeting Ahmadiyah, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities. More than 430 churches have been attacked, closed down, or burned down since 2004, according to the Communion of Churches in Indonesia. According to Ministry of Religious Affairs statistics in 2010, Indonesia has more than 243,000 mosques and almost 59,000 churches.

“The government needs to recommit itself to religious freedom for all communities,” Adams said. “By providing principled leadership it can calm the situation down. But if it gives in to extremists, there will only be more social divisions and violence in the future.”

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