By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Jakarta, Indonesia
JAKARTA, INDONESIA (BosNewsLife)– The pastor of a Pentecostal house church in northern Indonesia that was banned by Islamic village authorities says security forces have apologized for raiding his worship services.
Ganda Sinaga, who leads the Efata congregation in the village of Petalongan in Sumatra Island’s Indragiri Hilir district, also received permission to construct a church building.
The 41-year-old married father of one told BosNewsLife that the construction is due to start this month on land that was recently purchased with support from police and local business people.
His church is part of the Pentecostal Church in Indonesia or ‘Gereja Pantekosta di Indonesia’ (GPdI), one of Indonesia’s main Pentecostal denominations. The developments came after local Christian villagers, and the GPdI leadership strongly protested against the church ban.
Dramatic video footage of a recent incident obtained by BosNewsLife shows several police officers arriving as the pastor and dozens of Christians are praying in a tent. One policeman says: “Why you continue to pray here while we already agreed with you that you stop the services here.” Standing behind the pulpit, Pastor Sinaga answers: “I was not there when you had that so-called agreement.”
But a police officer makes clear that he will halt the service anyway, prompting panic among believers. One woman can be seen kneeling holding a leg of a policeman. “Help, help. We only want to pray to God. Why you disturb the worship service? We are Indonesian people like you. We have the right to worship!”, she cries.
Other emotional Christians join her in pleading to the security forces not to remove them from the tent. “We only pray; we harm nobody. We only want to worship here.” Some of them cry. One of them appeals to Indonesian president Joko Widodo to intervene.”Jesus helps us,” another woman says. “Lord Jesus, help us in this situation.”
A police officer then demands that the pastor comes with them for interrogation. Believers desperately try to prevent the pastor’s detention.
Amid the standoff, the desperate wife of the pastor, Serti Pandiangan, falls as she cries: “We only worship for two hours. Why you do this to us?” The incident, which was shared on social media, increased pressure on authorities to eventually allow the congregation to operate, the pastor said.
MORE CHURCH DIFFICULTIES
Efata isn’t alone in experiencing difficulties. Especially Pentecostal and other evangelical churches have complained about Islamic authorities banning their worship services.
Christians say authorities are angry that a growing number of Muslims are turning to Christianity in the mainly Muslim Asian nation of nearly 270 million people. Ex-Muslims cited dissatisfaction with strict Islam and love expressed by Christians towards them as among the reasons to turn to faith in Jesus Christ.
That isn’t an easy decision. “Many converts from Islam experience varying degrees of persecution from their families,” said advocacy group Open Doors in a recent assessment. “It usually happens in the form of isolation or verbal abuse,” the group added.
Indonesia is under international pressure to allow more religious freedom in the country. Next week, “interreligious dialogue” will be discussed when Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima meet government and religious leaders in Indonesia, BosNewsLife learned.
The royal visit comes amid reports about the growing influence of Islamic hardliners in the country. “The church in Indonesia has been wracked with adversity, including deadly suicide bombings and earthquakes that have left Christians reeling,” Open Doors stressed.
In 2018, 18 Christians were reportedly killed and many more wounded in a coordinated suicide bomb attack on three churches in the city of Surabaya.
RADICAL ISLAMIC GROUPS
Also that year, at least 11 crosses at the Giriloyo public cemetery in Magelang, Central Java, were desecrated by unknown perpetrators, Christians recalled.
The destruction came after villagers close to the city of Yogyakarta demanded the removal of a cross from a Catholic grave, rights activists said.
“While the government tightens the country’s blasphemy laws, most problems for believers and churches come from confrontations with radical Islamic groups that continue to exert significant influence. In certain hot spots like West Java or Aceh, churches that evangelize often become targets of these groups,” Open Doors added.
President Widodo has, in the past, pledged to work for more religious tolerance in Indonesia.
But critics claim he so far limits his policies to mainly economic reforms.