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An Easter story

The National Police (Polri) deployed tens of thousands of well-equipped personnel across the country to safeguard Easter celebrations from Thursday through Sunday.

Local governments also deployed Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) officers to support the police. Churchgoers have been grateful for the security measures.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the state is obliged to protect all citizens in performing their religious duties. However, under the current circumstances it would be naive to believe that the government meets this obligation for free.

Many minority groups pay dearly for state protection. Such groups have reportedly bribed government officials or mass organisations in order to be able to build places of worship. Oftentimes bribery does not help as the government orders the demolition of unlicensed churches anyway.

But there have been many cases in which the construction of churches has been stopped despite having a building permit and other necessary documents simply because some hard-liners do not accept the presence of a church.

During a visit to West Sumatra, a Muslim cleric protested to then president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid for not taking harsh measures against unlicensed churches in many parts of the country. The cleric could not answer when Gus Dur asked him in return: "Do you know how many mosques remain safe despite not having legal permits?"

Construction of houses of worship as part of freedom of religion is therefore not just a matter of legality.

Across Greater Jakarta alone, 4,620 police personnel were assigned to safeguard 1,129 churches over Easter. The help of Banser, an auxiliary group under the country's largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, is likely the most popular Good Samaritan among churchgoers because of its reputation for being tolerant.

Ban police from demanding cash

Churches across the country were overcrowded last week, with many "new faces" who only turn up at Christmas and Easter. Church leaders jokingly call them "submarine" Christians as they rarely come to the surface or Sunday services. Good Friday itself is always a pleasant day for Indonesians regardless of their religion, because the commemoration of Jesus Christ's death on the cross means a long weekend.

We hope National Police chief General Sutarman and local government officials will firmly declare that the cost of security operations in safeguarding Easter celebrations will be covered by the state and ban police personnel and government officers from demanding money in exchange for their services.

It is normal and acceptable that churches provide drinks and food for police and public order officers on duty. However, there have been many complaints about police and government officers responsible for public order asking for cash, but no formal reports have been made for fear of any backlash.

The amount of the money may be insignificant, but small or big, such demands are a blatant betrayal of the Constitution, which mandates the state, including the police and government officials at all levels, to protect citizens in exercising their freedom of religion.


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