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Page last updated at 00:21 GMT, Monday, 28 April 2008 01:21 UK

Indonesians seek salvation in shops

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, West Java

Indonesian Christians
Shopping malls in West Java are home to a number of Christian congregations

Empty shopping malls are eerie, and this one is no different.

But in the dim light of early morning, figures can be seen slipping past the security guards, their footsteps echoing down empty corridors.

It is Sunday morning, not yet 8 o'clock, and the shops are all still locked and shuttered.

But these people have not come to shop; they have come to pray.

Shopping malls in West Java are home to a growing number of Christian congregations. There are 10 in this mall alone.

Few of them want to talk publicly about why they are here, but off the record they admit it comes down to intimidation by Muslim groups.

According to Church groups more than 100 churches have faced attack or intimidation in the past two years.

Religion or rules?

One of the groups alleged to be behind some of these incidents is the FPI, or Islamic Defenders Front, a radical group that became a household name when it forced Playboy magazine out of Java.

FPI crew
Christians complain the FPI use threats to pressurise churches into closing

Church leaders allege the group's members are forcing churches to close through violence and intimidation.

Saipul Abdullah, the head of the FPI in this area, told me that there may be people at the grassroots level who react emotionally.

"They become very angry and frustrated and little eruptions can happen," he said.

"Maybe they'll tear down a sign, or shake some doors, or lock some doors, but they don't really have the right to do that."

But, he said, this was not about religion. It is about the fact that some churches are not playing by the rules.

Only 20% of the Churches in this province have an official permit to hold religious services.

It's not only about the permits, but about being Christian
Pastor Olbertina Modesta

To the others, often housed in temporary buildings, Saipul Abdullah and his group send letters asking for proof of their legal status.

If they get no response, he told me, they issue a warning letter, and then pass the matter on to the police.

To get an official permit, congregations must get 90 signatures of support from their non-Christian neighbours.

But in some areas, that is not easy to do.

Islamic stronghold

Pasundan Church has been holding services in a suburb of Bandung for more than 60 years.

But its pastor, Olbertina Modesta, says that whenever they try to collect the signatures they need to make the site official, no one wants to sign.

Indonesian Christians
Many Christians now feel too scared to hold major services in public places

West Java has a strong history of Islamic activism.

For decades it was a stronghold of the radical Islamic group Darul Islam, and many areas still retain preachers with hard-line views.

Last November, Pasundan church was attacked by a group of local Muslims.

They threw out the pews and prayer books, and smashed anything else they could - including the cross hanging on the wall.

But Pastor Olbertina doesn't believe this is simply a bureaucratic row.

"Sometimes I heard that the mosque is saying we are kaffirs, and we're not allowed to stay here," she told me.

"So that's why I believe it's not only about the permits, but about being Christian."

Police say no one has so far been arrested for the attack. Pastor Olbertina now holds her weekly service at a local hospital.

Shopping malls and hospitals don't have religious licences either, but they are a bit more secure.

And until congregations like hers can find a permanent home, it is where they will stay.


SEE ALSO
Anti-pornography rally in Jakarta
21 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Heated row at Indonesian Playboy
07 Apr 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Playboy sparks Indonesia porn row
07 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific
China officials halt Playboy club
09 Dec 04 |  Business
Playboy Magazine: Cover-up?
09 May 03 |  Newsmakers

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