Indonesian Christians stage Christmas protest at palace

Indonesian Christians stage Christmas protest at palace

JAKARTA - Hundreds of Indonesian Christians held a Christmas service Wednesday in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta to protest at the closure of their churches due to pressure by Muslim hardliners.

Some 200 people from two churches near the capital sang hymns, recited prayers and lit candles by a busy road alongside three "Christmas trees" constructed out of plywood and bamboo.

The service, involving people of all ages from toddlers to the elderly, began under the scorching sun and continued for hours even after the weather changed abruptly and heavy rain fell.

Christians are coming under increasing pressure from extremists in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been criticised for failing to tackle the growing intolerance.

"We want to remind our president once again that he has not yet resolved the issue of religious intolerance in this country," Bona Sigalingging, a spokesman for one of the churches, told AFP.

The churches, in the cities of Bekasi and Bogor, were closed in 2010 by local authorities who had come under pressure from Muslim hardliners.

Authorities said it was because the buildings lacked proper building permits, although rights groups say local governments are simply bowing to extremist pressure and using the permit issue as an excuse.

As well as Christians, hardliners in Sunni-majority Indonesia have targeted Muslim minorities. Ahmadis have seen their places of worship closed and Shiites have been subjected to violent attacks.

Ninety per cent of Indonesia's 250 million people identify themselves as Muslim although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

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