TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Bekasi City Mayor Rahmat Effendi has become a paradox on the issue of religion. At a time when hardline religious groups are becoming more vocal, he is defending and guaranteeing the construction of Santa Clara Church in the subdistrict of North Bekasi.
This Catholic church recently became a hot point in Bekasi, a city of 2.3 million people, of whom more than 86 percent are Muslims. Protests against the church have become more frequent. Two weeks ago, a group of people clashed with the police guarding the church. Rahmat, 53, was adamantly clear about his own position. "If I can be pressured by protests, well, I shouldn't be a mayor," said Rahmat. He persisted in giving the building permit for the church after acquiring the agreement of 64 neighbors around the construction site, the endorsement of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Bekasi Forum on Interreligious Groups (FKUP). These were all requirements for approving the construction of a place of worship.
Last month, the National Commission on Human Rights (KomnasHAM) gave Rahmat an award in recognition of his persistence in maintaining religious freedom and diversity in Bekasi. In fact, since 2010, he managed to resolve three other church related issues: similar bans on building the churches of Galilea in south Bekasi, the Kalamiring at Jatisampurna and the Manseng in north Bekasi. Yet Rahmat refuses to be called a defender of minority groups. "A leader must be just and stand above all groups," Rahmat explained.
Last week, the Bekasi mayor met with Tempo reporters Reza Maulana, Raymundus Rikang and Adi Warsono at his office. He had just returned from north Bekasi, where he gave a public explanation about the Santa Clara church. He was open and direct when answering questions, but more cautious when he spoke of the protesters' charges that he was once a member of the now outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
Public rejection towards the Santa Clara Church has been around since 2015. Why is that?
There is a group that does not want to see Bekasi become a tolerant city. They think that Santa Clara will be the biggest church in Southeast Asia. That's unlikely because it will stand only on 6,500 square meters of land, while the building itself will only be 1,500 square meter in size. Charges that the church is being built near two pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) is also untrue because it is located four kilometers away from AtTaqwa Pesantren-established by national hero Kiai Haji Noer Ali-and two kilometers away from the AnNur Pesantren.
Is it true that the church committee in charge of building falsified the signatures of residents approving it?
I checked it three times just to be sure. I also involved the military command and the police to check it out. Only then did I approve the issuance of the building permit, in 2015. After the construction had been going on for six months, the building permit was issued, along with the required progress report on the construction. I made this decision on behalf of Garuda Pancasila (the national philosophy on diversity based on five principles) to ensure our national integrity. So, I made sure that I would not have to withdraw that permit just because of pressure.
Do you plan to meet the group protesting your decision?
I last met them during a demonstration last year. If this is something good and they want it, why not? But if all they want is to demand and demand, it would be difficult to reach a middle ground with them.
Do you have the names of local leaders rejecting the Santa Clara Church?
There are a number of ustazds (Islamic preachers). I don't need to mention their names. I just regret that they are involving students of religious schools in their opposition. This is like exploiting children. If they are unhappy with my decision, sue me in court. Don't give the impression that we are still living in an uncivilized society.
How influential are the religious leaders in Bekasi?
So long as those kiai are influential, every word becomes an edict and everyone is expected to follow it. On the other hand, they will be gradually crushed by time. People today are becoming much smarter.
Aren't you worried about being seen as favoring the Christians because you keep on defending churches?
They (the Christian population) have the right to worship, so I defend them. But it doesn't mean that I neglect the Muslims. For example, I completed the construction of a mosque at Jaka Permai in West Bekasi, which 17 years ago was rejected by the elders because of the loud azan (call to prayer). The construction of the mosque at Grand Cempaka was also protested seven years ago, but now it's all built. Such progress is not exposed in the media because it has no added value. (*)
Read the full interview in this week’s edition of Tempo English Magazine