Hundreds of Islamic extremists took to the streets today in North Bekasi District, West Java Province, to protest against a permanent church for the local Catholic community.
The Catholic community of the St Clara parish in West Java Province has been fighting for the right to build a permanent church for 17 years, despite having a community of 7,000 people.
They were finally granted a permit last July, but Islamists blocked construction since then by protesting periodically.
Islamist groups had reacted to that by organising protests against the “permanent church”, but since then, the situation had quieted down, until Monday when tensions flared up again.
The St Clara community has existed since 1999 even though it has never had its own church. For years, Catholics took part in Sunday Mass and on other occasions, first at one, then at two separate locations because of the growing membership.
However, one of the two locations was no longer available last year. The community was thus left with a small building with room for 300 people in a commercial area.
Eman Dapaloka, a local, said that four celebrations are held every weekend to meet the needs of the St Clara congregation, which includes some 1,900 households or 7,000 people. In view of the limited space, many members have to travel to other neighbourhoods to attend Mass.
In the past, the need for a permanent place of worship has come up against local authorities and extremist groups. Complicating matters, getting a building permit is a long process in Indonesia, and can take up to ten years.
For Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, the whole thing is even more difficult because they need the backing of the local interfaith dialogue group and the signatures of at least 60 residents from the area where they plan to build a church.
Often local officials come up with “unspecified reasons” to block plans under pressure from radical Islamic movements. When the authorities do issue a building permit for Christians, extremists took to the streets to protest.
In an incident last year, demonstrators tried to tear down some sign posts on the site of the future church, but were stopped by police before they could cause any damage. Outside though, they spray-painted a graffiti that read ‘No church construction allowed’.
For their part, Bekasi authorities, including Mayor Rahmat Effendi, reacted by reiterating the validity of the issued permit, noting that Catholics can build their place of worship.
The site of the new church is in Harapan Baru, a village in North Bekasi District, some 25 km from the capital Jakarta. The land owned by Catholics covers some 6,000 sq. metres; the building itself would cover about 1,500 sq. metres.
Christians in Bekasi are not alone in this predicament. Co-religionists in St Bernadette Parish in Ciledug, Tangerang City, Banten Province, went through the same experience. Even though they had a permit to build, they have been unable to do so for the past two years because of opposition from extremist groups.