The Growing Persecuted Church in Indonesia

On 27 August 2005 Father Iwan Rusbani Setyawan was finishing the 5 p.m. mass at St. Anthony Chapel in Margahayu, a suburb of Bandung in West Java, Indonesia. This is what happened next:

“After mass, five men entered my chapel and asked me who had responsibility of the house. They asked me to sign a letter stating that I had to close the chapel. Two church members refused. Many people with swords and stones entered my chapel. They pressed us to sign the letter. They were from AGAP.”

AGAP is an abbreviation for Aliansi Gerakan Ant Pemurtadan, (Anti-Apostasy Alliance Movement). AGAP is led by Muhammad Mu’min Al-Mubarak, a Muslim radical who advocates the abduction of westerners. Mu’min is a former Christian who converted to Islam and has a passion to eradicate Indonesia of Christianity, which is rapidly growing throughout the country. He is a Paul who has become a Saul.

AGAP has a mission to close, in their words, all the “wild churches.” These are churches that they feel are not complying with AGAP’s interpretation of Joint Ministerial Decree No. 1/1969. This degree, called the Regulation on Building Houses of Worship, states that official religions must comply with a number of Ministry of Religious Affairs and other ministerial directives in their registration and activities.

Father Iwan signed the letter to close his chapel. “There are two reasons I signed this letter,” said Father Iwan of the incident. “I would save the lives of my church members and I would save my chapel. They said they would kill us if we did not close. They came in with swords on their backs and backpacks full of stones. Their faces were covered with white and black handkerchiefs. The presence of them made me so scared.”

In West Java AGAP operates with full cooperation from the local government. “An official from the local government accompanied the AGAP raiders and a local police official accompanied the group too,” Father Iwan said. “The officials kept silent and allowed this to happen. After I signed the letter they left.”

Like many churches in Indonesia, St. Anthony Chapel has tried for years to obtain a permit from the local government. However, no permits have been approved in the past twenty-five years. This means that no church has been allowed to build for twenty-five years in West Java. Because Father Iwan could not get a permit to worship in a house he had brought in 1986, he obtained signed letters from all neighbors which stated they would allow worship which was pursuant with local law.

Recent erroneous media reports indicated that Joint-Ministerial Decree No. 1/1969 had been modified. According to reports, Indonesian “interfaith forums” are now authorized to issue permits to establish places of worship. According to the reports, religious groups were previously required to obtain permission from local communities as well as the local government before building places of worship. These reports implied that it would be easier for churches to obtain permits and that Indonesia was becoming more tolerant of different religions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. According to Father Iwan, the 1969 regulation is currently being reviewed, but is still in the revision process. However, Father Iwan warned that interfaith forums would make it even more difficult for Christians: “If the decision falls under the ‘Religion Forum’ it will be even more difficult. The policy should be eliminated, not modified.”

For Father Iwan, the main question concerns who gave AGAP permission to close his church: “The police do nothing to stop them; did nothing to stop. No action. This is happening to many churches in West Java, both Catholic and Protestant.”

Indeed, the forced closure of churches in West Java is occurring at an alarming rate. According to West Java Christian leader John Simon Timorason, at least thirty-five churches in Bandung and neighboring regions have had been closed by Islamic mobs during the past twelve months.

On the night of 21 August 2005, Jacob was cleaning the sanctuary after the service at his church in Dayeuhkolot, a suburb of Bandung. He was scared to even talk about the incident.

“I was cleaning up after the 5:00 p.m. worship service and AGAP came through the doors. These were not our neighbors; they were from the outside. More than fifty of them came into the church, wearing masks and carrying swords and backpacks with stones. I was so afraid. They were very angry and they were shouting ‘Allah Akbar.’ I went out to call for help. The police came but did nothing.”

Jacob continued. “The AGAP came in around 10:00 p.m. and left at 3:00 a.m. the next morning. They said that this was the last time we could worship there. They told us to not worship there again.”

According to Jacob, the pastor who lived next to the church got away and is in hiding. He said the AGAP are trying to get the pastor to sign a letter to close the church but he refuses.

Jacob’s 200-member church has had a good relationship with their neighbors for years and has provided food and aid to the community. The forced closure of churches is taking a heavy emotional toll on minority Christians in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

Formaningrum has been extremely upset since the 27 July 2005 forced closure of the church she helped to found in Bajem Katapang, a suburb of Bandung.

“We met in my home starting in 1988, but we grew and so we built this church in 1996,” Formaningrum said. “We applied for a permit five times, but never received a permit. We built without permission. Most of my neighbors are Christians, some are Muslims, but we had permission from the community.”

More than 200 people attended the church before its closure. According to Formaningrum, AGAP pressured the local government to close the church.

“We had no choice but to sign the letter. They threatened us, saying ‘if something happens we don’t want to be responsible. If you continue to worship, we are not responsible for what will happen to you.’ They were sending us a message that harm would come. They said people would come in from outside our area and hurt us. We have no expectation that the church will be allowed to reopen. This is happening to many, many other churches.”

For Formaningrum and many others, this is a time of uncertainty and fear: “When this happened I collapsed, crying for two days. Did I do something wrong? Did I sin? Why did God allow our church to shut down?” Formaningrum was even hospitalized for a week due to stress and depression.

Seeking Freedom of Worship
The situation for Christians in Indonesia should be a cause of major concern for all caring Christians and freedom loving people. If we silently stand by and allow the eradication of Christians in Indonesia, then we all will suffer the consequences.

President of the United States, George W. Bush, warned in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C. on 6 October 2005 that “the militants believe that controlling one country [Iraq] will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire from Spain to Indonesia.”

Persecution of Christians in Indonesia is both systematic and systemic. It must be condemned. Religious freedom and tolerance in these front line areas represents the best hope of stopping the establishment of a radical Islamic empire.

As Christian Siswanto, a Christian leader in West Java said, “Please urge the Indonesian government to change the law so that we can have the right to worship. We should have a right to build our church, to worship. Freedom of worship should be a fundamental human right.”


Jim Jacobson is president of Christian Freedom International, a US-based human rights organization helping persecuted Christians. Before joining CFI, Jacobson served as a policy analyst in the White House and as a legislative aide in the US Senate. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan.