Bekasi Church Riot a Sign of Rising Religious Intolerance

Last week's violent protest outside the Santa Clara Church are a sign of something worse.
March 27, 2017, 12:00pm
Photo courtesy Ferry Maitimu

A violent protest outside the construction site of a Bekasi church last Friday has some asking if Indonesia's religious minorities are losing ground to the country's newly emboldened hardline Islamist fringe.

Hardline groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), staged a chaotic protest at the site of the Santa Clara Church, in North Bekasi, which ended with five police officers injured and tear gas fired on the crowd. The Islamists have been protesting the expansion of the church, which has seen its congregation swell from 300 members to more than 9,000, for more than a year. But the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the local government said that the church had all the necessary permits needed to expand and hold religious services.


The demonstration looked like an echo of similar movements against Christians and Muslim minorities that were commonplace in West Java during the administration of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But, unlike those protests which often ended with the provincial government siding with the Islamists, last Friday's demonstration failed to move Bekasi Mayor Rahmat Effendi.

The church's construction was perfectly legal and it would continue as planned, Rahmat said.

"I firmly refused [to revoke the church's permit]," Rahmat told "I told them to their face, I'd rather get shot in the head than revoke the church's construction permit."

Instances of religious intolerance are on the rise again, according to data compiled by the SETARA Institute. In 2016, the think tank recorded 270 instances of religious intolerance, a rise from over the previous year's numbers. In 2015, the institute found 236 instances of intolerance and discrimination nationwide—a significant drop over the nearly 300 instances recorded in the first six months of 2012 alone.

Now, religious intolerance seems to be on the rise again, with hardliners using flashpoints like the expansion of a Christian church to flex their political muscles after gaining influence during the capital's blasphemy protests.

But these recent protests have nothing to do with building permits, said SETARA Institute chairman Hendardi.

"In the case of Santa Clara Church, intolerant groups protest in order to show that their group is more superior than the minority group."