Christian organizations in Indonesia have agreed on a plan to file a class action against the Indonesian government for maintaining a joint decree that requires religious communities to seek approval from the local administration in the event that a place of worship is built. According to a local newspaper, the decree has led to delays in the construction of churches, and often times refusal of requests.
“The decree is contrary to Article 29 of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to choose their belief and perform their religious duties,” said Nathan Setiabudi, chairman of the Indonesian Communion of Churches.
According to the Jarkarta Post, a local Indosian news agency, the Christian organizations that are planning to file the class action have insisted that the joint ministerial decree, issued in 1969 by then religious affairs minister Mohammad Dahlan and home affairs minister Amir Machmud, went against human rights and principles of religious freedom.
The decree, which entails the government’s responsibility to regulate the construction of places of worship and religious activities, allows for local authorities to consult leaders of other religious communities or organizations before approving the proposal.
Although in theory, the decree seems fair, Christians argue that in practice, the decree has served as an obstacle for the nation’s religious minorities.
When local authorities consult leaders of other religious communities or organizations, “very often, consultation was carried out with the intention of registering objection to the construction of places of worship,” said Nathan.
In many cases, the consultation forum was considered compulsory, added Nathan.
A man, who requested anonymity, to the Jarkarta Post he had been waiting for more than 10 years to build a church in the city of Bandung, 110 miles southeast of Jakarta.
“We were told that some 30 people in the neighborhood opposed our plan to build a church, but subsequently we discovered that more than 300 people had signed a petition demanding the plan be scrapped,” the man said.
He later learned that the additional signatories were people outside the neighborhood.
The lawyer representing Christian organizations, Habiburokhman, said he would file the class action with the Central Jakarta District Court at the end of this month.
“We shall ask the government to revoke the ministerial decree and apologize to affected citizens,” he said.
He also said that his clients had dropped their plan to seek help from presidential candidates, saying they were afraid the candidates, if elected, would break their promises.
Christian groups raised the issue with then President Abdurrahman Wahid; his successor, Megawati Soekarnoputri, has almost completed her term but the issue remains unaddressed.
Separately, Masdar Mas’udi, acting chairman of the country’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, agreed that although the construction of a place of worship needed to be handled differently to other types of development, the government’s role should be minimal.
Suspecting discrimination of this type affect Muslim communities living in predominantly non-Muslim regions, such as Papua and East Nusa Tenggara, he said he would study the joint decree carefully.
“If its implementation discriminates against certain religious groups and fails to uphold justice, the government should withdraw it,” he said.
For the Christians of Indonesia, which make up 8% of the of the country’s population, withdrawal of the decree would mean more churches, and a greater opportunity for the Christian community to grow and expand.
Currently, Muslims make up about 88% of the country’s population of 215 million, making Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim country.