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Church-Building as a Means of Communication in a Multicultural Society

Religious Freedom Violation

Although religious freedom in Indonesia–which has the world’s largest Muslim population–is guaranteed by law, discrimination against religious minorities still exists. One such case occurred in December 2022. In Cilebut Barat, Sukaraja District, about 64 kilometers (39 miles) south of Jakarta, the group of Muslims lined up outside a home where Batak Christian Church’s Christmas Day worship was planned and kept worshippers from entering the house.[1] Hundreds of discrimination cases like this have occurred in previous years. Throughout 2020, there were 180 violations of freedom of belief and religion. In 2021, there were 171 incidents. The Setara Institute, a leading Indonesia-based NGO that conducts research and advocacy for democracy, political freedom, and human rights, decisively reports that 180 religious freedom violations occurred in 2020. This number was only slightly declining in 2021 when 171 violations occurred. The actual number could be more than that, but it is only recorded because many cases are not reported to the National Human Rights Commission.

Law Perspective and Socio-cultural Background

In the case mentioned above of Cilebut, the congregation has no church because the requirements for building a church have not been met yet. According to human rights advocates, the requirements for obtaining permission to build houses of worship in Indonesia are onerous and impede the establishment of such buildings for Christians and other religious minorities. Permit to establish a place of worship often becomes the cause of prohibiting building churches or even destroying them. The Joint Ministerial Decree of 2006[2] in Indonesia makes obtaining permits for most new churches nearly impossible. This regulation demands three conditions: first, the local government should issue the license to establish a house of worship. Second, there is a recommendation from the Communication Forum of Inter-Religious Communities (“Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama” in Indonesian), a forum for inter-faith community leaders under the auspices of local governments and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Third, a minimum of 60 community members support the plan to build a house of worship. These three requirements open the possibility of discrimination.

First, the authority of local governments to issue permits for the establishment of houses of worship can be politicized by local governments (governors, regents). For example, a governor does not permit a Christian community to build a church in a Muslim-majority area because he wants to gain support from the Muslim population in the next general election.

Second, the Communication Forum of Inter-Religious Communities cannot defend minority groups. This is because the membership of the forum is based on religious representation. This means that the more a religion has adherents in a region, the greater its membership in the forum.

Third, the requirement of community support from at least 60 community members has the potential to cause discrimination. The requirement is undoubtedly acceptable in an area where the community is tolerant. Still, in an area with a low tolerance attitude, it will certainly hinder the establishment of houses of worship.

Causes: Majoritarianism and Xenophobia

The challenges of establishing a place of worship are not limited to Christian communities living in Muslim-majority areas. Muslim minority groups face similar challenges when living in Christian-majority areas, such as Flores, or Hindu-majority areas, such as Bali. This demonstrates the reality of “majoritarianism.” Majoritarianism holds that an ethnic or religious majority has the right to determine the destiny of a nation without regard for minority rights.[3] Examples of majoritarianism can be seen in ethnoreligious nationalism, including the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, and Bamar Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. Ethnoreligious nationalism is the conflation of national identity and the religious affiliation of the ethnic majority. Only members of the majority group are treated as full citizens in all of these examples. At the same time, minorities are tolerated as long as they do not challenge the majority, are appropriately deferential, and accept being marginalized– politically, economically, and culturally. In a country characterized by majoritarianism, minority groups of any religion will be vulnerable to discrimination. The regulation of permits to build houses of worship in Indonesia has led to a dichotomy of majority and minority.

In addition, Setara Institute notes that the problem of establishing houses of worship for minorities in Indonesia is also caused by social segregation, where people tend to choose spaces for interaction with the same group. Radical Muslim groups, although small in number, have spread xenophobia among Muslims. The presence of Christians and symbols representing their existence, such as churches, can lead to feelings of threat in some Muslims.

A Possible Approach

A priest and architect, Y. B. Mangunwijaya (1929 – 1999), once stated that church buildings are often built grandly in many areas. Westernized architectural styles can create the impression that the church is a foreign element in the socio-cultural landscape. Therefore, Mangunwijaya is concerned about an “indigenized” or “inculturated” style of church architecture. He sees that church buildings do not only function as places of worship or liturgical activities. The history of Christianity in the Middle Ages shows that church buildings served as places of worship and a means of teaching morality. Charles Bouchard[4] and John Lewis[5] showed that the windows of cathedrals in Europe were decorated with stained glass depicting personified figures of virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues, namely justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence. Learning from this, Mangunwijaya argues that church buildings should be a means of communication between Catholics and people of other religions.

Mangunwijaya has translated his theological ideas into several church-building designs. His architectural works embody the vision of the Indonesian Church, namely the Church that dialogues with multicultural and multireligious society and becomes part of society. In the context of the relationship between Christians and the Muslim majority, which is not always characterized by a conducive atmosphere, church buildings can communicate the above vision to the community. Thus, it is hoped that the physical presence of church buildings does not cause negative feelings (for example, feelings of threat or the impression of being arrogant-exclusive) towards the majority community. Unfortunately, Mangunwijaya’s approach to designing church buildings does not seem widely considered by the local church hierarchy. Therefore, Mangunwijaya’s architectural works need to be studied to find their theological-ecclesiological, socio-cultural, and architectural meanings in the sociocultural context of Indonesian society.


[1] “Muslim Villagers Halt Christmas Celebrations in Indonesia”, Morning Star News. Accessed: February 19, 2023.

[2] Ismatu Ropi, “Muslim Villagers Halt Christmas Celebrations in Indonesia”, Inside Indonesia. Accessed: February 19, 2023.

[3] Jeff Kingston, “Ethnoreligious Nationalism and Majoritarianism in Asia,” Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs 6 (2020): 20–27.

[4] Charles Bouchard, Whatever Happened to Sin. Virtue, Friendship, and Happines in Moral Life (Chicago: New Priory Press, 2013).

[5] John A. H. Lewis, The Architecture of Medieval Churches: Theology of Love in Practice, 1st ed., Routledge research in architecture (New York: Routledge, 2018).