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This Christmas appears likely to be a gloomy one for the congregation of GKI Yasmin. Locked out of its church building in Bogor, a West Java city not far from Jakarta, by a populist local mayor, the protestant congregation is likely to gather on the street outside, where it has been forced to conduct its regular Sunday services. But even there, it is likely to face vocal protests from a local hard-line Muslim group, which has long objected to the site of the church, and, it seems, the congregation itself.

In many ways, it’s a sadly appropriate way for the year to end for Indonesia’s 20-million plus Christian community. It’s been a trying 12 months, and shows little sign of improving in the new year. In April, a plot to bomb a church near Jakarta on Good Friday was foiled, while in September a church in Solo was the site of a suicide bomb, although fortunately the bomber himself was the sole fatality. The symbolic assault has raged even if the physical one fails to inflict carnage: last week a statue of the Madonna in Central Java was vandalised, its head lopped off by offenders unknown.

But it’s the GKI Yasmin conflict that has proven a festering sore for a country that prides itself on its religious diversity.

The conflict goes back to 2008, when the established church was evicted from its site by Bogor mayor Diani Budiarto, who claimed rather spuriously that the church had committed a planning violation. The decision was overturned by the nation’s Supreme Court, which ordered the local government permit the congregation to return to its building. But the ruling was never honoured by the Budiarto, who continued to deny the congregation the right of access.

The mayor has turned to increasingly spurious arguments to justify his objections to the use of the church. His most risible was that the church should not be permitted to operate at the disputed site because the street bore a Muslim name — Jalan Abdullah bin Nuh — and was therefore not an appropriate site for the holy place of another faith.

Local objections have been stoked in recent months by the arrival of a shady group calling itself the Indonesian Muslim Communication Forum, which has blockaded the street where congregants gather and shout abuse. Showing a complete lack of irony, it objects to the “arrogance” of the congregation in seeking to establish itself in an area when Islam is the dominant faith. Local administration public order officers, notionally there to ensure the conflict does not come to blows, have ended up brawling with the congregation.

For its part, the congregation has maintained a stoic dignity. “But we are resolute — we will not stop praying there until what is rightfully ours, our church, is reopened,” GKI Yasmin spokesman Bona Sigalingging said in October. “We will come there to pray. Be it only for five minutes, we will come every week.”

Sad at such a story is, it would be possible to dismiss it as the intolerance of a local community and the leaders who pander to it. But the reaction of national leaders gives a true insight into the failure of Indonesia to live up to its creed.

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, but as is ultimately a secular state. Its leaders frequently and enthusiastically cite the constitution, and its explicit statement that there are six religions to which Indonesians may adhere — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Political leaders would rival their Australian counterparts in exhorting their tolerance for diverse faiths.

But this commitment appears to frequently break down when it comes to responding to particular examples of breaches of this interfaith peace.

In the case of GKI Yasmin, no political leader — from president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to his deputy Boediono to his religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali — has uttered unambiguous support for the congregation to return to its church. Not even the existence of a Supreme Court ruling requiring a return has managed to persuade them to take a stand on the issue.

Indeed, the government appears to be acquiescing to the intransigence of the Bogor mayor. The home affairs minister, Gamawan Fauzi, recently got involved in an attempt to offer the congregation alternative sites in the city. The congregation stood its ground, saying it wanted to return to its existing location.

Just why political leaders would remain so aloof on this issue says much about the current leadership. Yudhoyono is a secular leader, but knows that much of his support comes from culturally conservative Muslim voters. While he is far too sophisticated a leader to explicitly appeal to their religious prejudices, he is not at all averse to reaching for the dog whistle. On this issue, Yudhoyono is signalling his sympathy to Muslim voters who wish to pay little more than lip service to the constitution’s doctrine of multiple theologies and see the state as having a significantly role in entrenching the power of the dominant faith.

That Yudhoyono may not actually agree with such a position is beside the point. The issue shows that he is sufficiently politically weak that he cannot vocally defend the application of the constitution, and the ruling of the Supreme Court, in the case of the GKI Yasmin congregation. Even as the issue garners international attention, including from the World Council of Churches, Yudhoyono stays away from the fray. That his ruling coalition draws on the support of some explicitly Islam-based parties adds to the pressure for him leave deny support to the congregation.  At a time when Indonesia is desperately in need of leaders who articulate a message of tolerance, his silence indicates he is cynically tapping into the well of intolerance.

For the congregation of GKI Yasmin, there is little cause for optimism. Indonesia’s ombudsman has become involved, referring the Bogor mayor to Yudhoyono for his defiance of the court order, but that’s had no apparent effect on the president. A local multi-religious community group, calling itself West Bogor Community Forum for Peace, has taken up the cause, with its spokesman providing the sort of clarity that national leaders are lacking: “The funny thing is, what they’re fighting for is wrong,” he said last month of the hard-liners. “Even an untrained person such as myself knows the church has already been approved by the state [via the Supreme Court]. So it’s fair for someone like me to say that they’re just rogues who don’t want Bogor to be peaceful.” Whether the group has any impact, however, remains to be seen.

For Christians around the world, this time of year is intended to be a period of peace, joy and togetherness. For the worshippers in the GKI Yasmin congregation — and indirectly, their fellow travellers across Indonesia — such tranquillity will be hard to achieve.

Peter Fray

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