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Govt won't prosecute Muslim hard-liners over church closure

Jakarta Post, August 29, 2005

Muninggar Sri Saraswati and Yuli Tri Suwarni, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Bandung

The government said it would not take action against Muslim hard-liners who closed down dozens of churches in West Java last year, arguing that what was being closed down were not churches but "illegal congregations".

"We will do nothing. We only clarify here that there were no church closures," Minister of Religious Affairs M. Maftuh Basyuni said late last week after a Cabinet meeting.

"The case has been settled and the church side understand this."

He explained that the group closed down the illegal congregations set up in residential areas because they "had created anxiety among local residents" in the predominantly Muslim province.

The government, he added, has issued regulations for establishing houses of worship that must be obeyed by all citizens.

The minister was referring to a joint ministerial decree signed in 1969 by then religious affairs minister Moh. Dahlan and home minister Amir Machmud, which requires those who want to establish places of worship to obtain permission from local administrations and the approval of local residents.

Moderate Muslim leaders, including Azyumardi Azra and former president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, have urged the government to resolve the case and take firm action against a small intolerant section of the Muslim community.

They said that only the government is authorized to close down houses of worship.

The West Java Police have also previously said they would not make any arrests of persons involved in the closure of the churches because no violence occurred during the closures.

However, the police on Friday summoned the leader of Muslim hard-line group Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance(AGAP), Muhammad Mu'min Al-Mubarak, for questioning as a suspect, not related to the church closure case, but in connection with the unauthorized confiscation of liquor by 300 of the group's followers on July 24, 2005 from seven shops in Bandung. The charge carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison under Article 406 of the Criminal Code.

Earlier head of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) Andreas A. Yewangoe complained to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono about the closure of 23 churches in the Wesst Java capital of Bandung an neighboring areas by the hard-line group last year.

However, chairman of the Communication Forum of West Java Churches John Simon Timorason claimed that a total of 35 churches had been closed down by the hard-line group over the past year.

He admitted that the closed churches did not have permits as required in the joint ministerial decree, but had indeed obtained operational licenses from the West Java Religious Affairs Office.

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is facing a serious problem on how to deal with rising religious fanaticism in the country, which has the world's largest Muslim population. The administration has been facing strong criticism from moderate religious leaders as it has failed to take action against thousands of hard-liners who in July attacked the Jamaah Ahmadiyah Congregation (JAI) compound in Bogor, West Java.

Ahmadiyah was formed in Pakistan in the 19th century. Its followers believe that Ghulam Ahmad Khan, who founded the group, was a prophet who came after the Prophet Muhammad, whom mainstream Muslims believe was God's final messenger.

Ahmadiyah is little known in Indonesia and there are only an estimated 200,000 followers in the country.

Experts have called on the government to act swiftly to protect people's right to freely practice their religion.