The use of Indonesia’s “religious harmony” laws to prevent members of a minority religion from being able to worship was dramatically highlighted once again in a case that was captured in a viral video showing officers of the Civil Service Police (Satpol PP) stopping a church service in Riau on Sunday.
The video below shows the moment when Satpol PP officers arrived at a service of GPDI Efata, an Indonesian Pentecostal Church, located in Indragiri Hilir regency’s Petalongan Village. The service was being held at a tent set up at the home of Damianus Sinaga, the church’s pastor.
The Satpol PP officers arrive while the Damianus of GPDI Efata was giving his Sunday sermon to the congregation. The officers tell Damianus that he has to stop his sermon but Damianus says they are in the middle of worship and asks the officers to at least wait until they are finished.
But the officers are adamant that he has to stop. Several members of the congregation plead with them to let them worship, with some even calling out to President Joko Widodo to help them.
“Help us, we are just trying to pray and worship our God. We are Indonesian citizens, where are our rights?” one woman can be heard asking an officer.
However, the officers are unmoved, saying they are acting on a decision made with the full knowledge of Indragiri Hilir Regent Syamsuddin Uti, which they said the pastor was already aware of.
On August 7, the regent sent a letter to the GPDI Efata banning them from worshipping in the church building they had used since 2014 as it did not meet the requirements set out by the Religious Affairs Ministry and Home Ministry for houses of worship.
Those requirements were set out in a 2006 joint ministerial decree on religious harmony that has been severely criticized by rights activists who argue that decree has greatly reduced religious freedoms in Indonesia by giving the religious majority in any given area the ability to easily block the opening of houses of worship for religious minorities.
The August 7 letter banning worship service at the GPDI Efata church was issued by the regent after a petition was filed by a number of residents of the local village who objected to the church and its services. That ban is what led the congregation to hold services at the reverend’s home, but officials said it was also not authorized to be used for worship services.
In the wake of the video going viral, a meeting to discuss a solution to the issue was held yesterday with Deputy Governor of Riau Edy Natar Nasution, as well as a number of other government officials and religious figures, including the chairperson of the Riau chapter of the Indonesian Pentecostal Churches Association Reverend Rikson Sitorus.
Before the meeting. Rikson actually apologized for the circulation of the viral video and said that he had received a message from GPDI Efata’s Reverend Damianus saying the situation was not exactly as shown in the video.
“Yes, we were shocked that the situation was like that, right? It could cause a riot. But clearly, before this meeting, I received a video from (Reverend Damianus Sinaga) giving a statement about the circulating video saying it was not entirely correct,” Rev. Rikson said yesterday as quoted by Selasar Riau.
“So he apologizes to all the people of Indonesia, because this has become viral throughout Indonesia. That he said. I apologize, the video is not true and all of us are safe,” Rev. Rikson added. However, he did not specify in what way the video was incorrect or misleading.
After the meeting, officials said that their solution they had agreed to was that the GPDI Efata congregation would need to go to another church a significant distance from their village.
“The solution is that the GPDI Efata congregation will be diverted to the nearest church eight kilometers from the house used for worship (the house of Rev. Damianus),” Deputy Riau Governor Edy Natar Nasution said yesterday.
Several similar cases of churches being shut down as a result of the country’s religious harmony laws have taken place in recent years, including the closure of three churches in the East Sumatran city of Jambi last year and a church-house in Medan early this year.