Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Battle for the pews

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Gerry van Klinken

Early in 1995, Rev Nababan told a rapt Jakarta congregation of the Batak Protestant Church HKBP of his recent adventures in North Sumatra:
It was no use, wherever I went I was tailed. So I left for Prapat, together with two ministers I considered brilliant. Arriving there we were told to go down to Sibaganding, where no one expected us. A speed boat transferred us to Samosir Island, again landing in an unexpected spot. The trip took only 13 minutes. Extraordinary! The speed boat driver said: 'Mister Ephorus, don't be afraid. This is the fastest speed boat on Lake Toba. No one will ever catch us'.

The four of us went into a house in a lonely place, without attracting attention. We were then put in a vegetable truck with one light missing. Travelling at high speed we were not stopped, and entered the church at 8pm in heavy rain. Afterwards I was told the authorities had that afternoon told church officials that Mr Nababan was not allowed to come here, and that anyway everything had been sealed off. They did not know I was already there.

By 10am the next day, Sunday, only a few dozen had turned up. By noon only about 350. There were more people guarding me than turning up for church. The committee was getting scared. Suddenly about half past one people started flooding in. More than 4000 within an hour. Apparently all boats had been stopped from landing at Ambarita, the main jetty on Samosir. So they landed 5-7 km away in a place they were not expected, and walked back. At ten past two we came out of hiding. There were over 5000 people for the church service.


'Mister Ephorus' is Dr S A E Nababan, ephorus, or archbishop, of the largest Protestant church in Indonesia, the 2.5 million strong HKBP. But why did he have to engage in these guerilla tactics just to lead a church service on Samosir Island, in the middle of the stunningly beatiful Lake Toba? The story of how the security agency Bakorstanasda in 1992 issued an order simply dismissing Nababan from his position as ephorus, and replacing him with someone more to its liking, is bizarre. It also makes a fascinating case study in the way religion and the state interact in modern Indonesia.

Most Indonesians are Muslim, but in certain areas around the outer rim of the country Christians are in the majority. North Tapanuli in Sumatra is one such. Bataks there converted to Christianity under the influence of German missionaries at the end of the last century. Even today, the size of Sunday morning congregations often amazes visitors from the post-Christian West.

As an organization, the HKBP has always been riven by internal conflict and even schisms. But never did disagreement lead to sustained violence until the state became involved from August 1990.


In 1987 a synod of the church elected Nababan as its new ephorus. Dr Nababan was educated in Germany, and was for years the leading figure in the Indonesian Christian ecumenical movement. Becoming ephorus of the HKBP was for him actually a step down into provincial life. He was known as, at times, an authoritarian figure, with enemies as well as fervent admirers. He also espoused a more socially active theology for the faithful.

By early 1990 a non-government organization (NGO) known by the acronym KSPPM had sprung up under the church's protection. It began taking on the horrendous environmental and land rights abuses committed by the giant paper-pulp factory Indorayon, situated near Lake Toba.

Any large business venture in Indonesia needs to be politically well-connected, and Indorayon is too. Its need to protect itself against citizen protests, mediated by the KSPPM, meshed with the personal ambitions of several local power holders. As a result, the KSPPM was officially banned in August 1990, though on such flimsy legal grounds that it was able to reopen two months later.

Not satisfied with harrassing a small organisation of activists, the powers felt that the backing for dissent had to be rooted out completely. That meant getting rid of Nababan. But how do you eliminate a difficult leader of an otherwise legal organisation? The normal method employed in Indonesia is covertly to support a rival faction. This was done, for example, in the PDI in 1996.


The HKBP certainly offered plenty of rivalries open to cultivation. By November 1992 the Military Area Commander in northern Sumatra, Maj-Gen R Pramono, was so deeply committed to the anti-Nababan faction within HKBP that he ordered hundreds of troops to disrupt a church synod where Nababan expected to be re- elected.

In his capacity as chief of the provincial joint security agency Bakorstanasda, Pramono then brazenly ordered the appointment of Nababan's rival, Rev P W T Simanjuntak, to become HKBP ephorus instead.

Illegitimate power in a religious organisation is fragile power, and Simanjuntak soon became painfully aware of it. Nevertheless an important advantage, to his mind, was that the key to legitimacy in the HKBP is a very material one, namely possession of quite concrete buildings.

During April and May 1993, under military protection, thugs used considerable violence to wrest control of many parsonages and church buildings from the majority of ministers who remained loyal to Nababan. The thugs were often members of Pemuda Pancasila, an organisation related to Golkar. They were hired by the Simanjuntak faction.

Horrific stories of torture in police and military detention centres also began to appear. There was some violence from the Nababan side too, but this was legally prosecuted, while none on the Simanjuntak side were prosecuted for their offences.

Military Area Commander Maj-Gen A Pranowo, who replaced Pramono in April 1993, soon betrayed his frustration at parishioners' stubborn persistence in sticking with Nababan even if it meant abandoning formal worship and meeting in their private homes. He said people should not believe only worship led by Nababan was acceptable to God, while that led by Simanjuntak was not.


Throughout 1993 and 1994 both sides energetically pulled strings in Jakarta. Simanjuntak had the inside track, and lobbied quietly with Cabinet ministers and the President. Nababan could only appeal to the people - to Parliament, and to the National Commission on Human Rights (of which his younger brother Asmara Nababan was a well-known member). Large delegations of women, ministers, and others came down from North Sumatra to support Nababan. All pleaded for the state not to interfere in religious matters. It was for him a new experience to be out on the margins of power with the human rights and pro-democracy activists.

Official opposition to a Nababan-led HKBP was initially local. Jakarta long maintained an appearance of neutrality and paternal concern at internal disunity. But in reality the government soon hardened against Nababan's return, even if Simanjuntak's violent tactics have not commended themselves to a somewhat image- conscious Jakarta elite.

After the huge labour demonstrations in Medan in April 1994, Nababan lost what little ground he had over against the state. Pranowo declared that the labour union SBSI that organised the demonstrations had its roots in the HKBP under Nababan. That was why the government was opposed to both, he said. Indeed Muchtar Pakpahan, leader of the labour union SBSI, had acted for the Nababan side as a legal adviser in 1993. The most fearless SBSI leader in Medan, Amosi Telaumbanua, had found his activist feet in the KSPPM.


Since then the situation has remained indeterminate. Whilst not enjoying the national press coverage it had between 1992 and 1994, disturbing reports continue to surface.

Nababan now spends most of his time in Jakarta. The foray recounted above took place in February 1995. He had originally planned to go to Paniaran, near Siborongborong. But truckloads of fully armed soldiers blocked the roads and turned back vehicles carrying many thousands heading for the service. Resourceful supporters then took Nababan in the opposite direction, to Lake Toba. There he managed to evade the 'seal' and meet his enthusiastic followers.

Hoodlums thought to be in the pay of Simanjuntak continue to attack churches not yet under his control. So in June 1995 they attacked at Labuhan Batu, near Pekan Baru, injuring a clergyman. In the same month a hundred thugs attacked a church in Binjai, 10 km north of Medan, badly injuring 14 including a minister and his family, one of whom later died.

In July 1995 police arrested 80 and even opened fire, injuring one, as they tried to stop 2000 HKBP youth holding a service in Pearaja, 250 km southwest of Medan. In the same month a crowd of 70 attacked a HKBP church in Padang, West Sumatra, injuring eight including a minister, and damaging the building. The following week they attacked again, injuring two. Only 30 of the 700 HKBP families in Padang had gone over to the Simanjuntak side.


In April 1996 Abri adopted full battle posture to stop thousands attending an April Easter celebration led by Nababan in Tarutung, the heart of HKBP territory and normally under Simanjuntak control. But Nababan was dragged into church anyway by loyal parishioners who had managed to evade them, and he led a long service. Before that he had addressed 7500 in a borrowed Catholic church in Medan, and afterwards he spoke in Siborongborong, having been blocked by Abri in Porsea.

In July 1996 a fight was narrowly averted when Nababan supporters tried to move back into a church in Palembang, South Sumatra, that had been sealed by the military. They were met by aggressive Simanjuntak supporters. The following week the confrontation was renewed and riot police were called out.

Since the intervention began, it is estimated that around ten have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds arrested, mostly on the Nababan side. By taking the advice of the military, the Jakarta government has created widespread dissatisfaction in an area of Indonesia that was always loyal, and that has provided many prominent individuals for its modernisation programmes. Yet there are no signs that those with power to change things are doing anything other than hope it will all go away.

The affair has nothing to do with anti-Christian sentiment in Jakarta. It has everything to do with a fear of dissent growing within a large religious community. Urbanisation and the arrival of environmental and labour problems associated with North Sumatra's burgeoning industry is transforming Batak society. The church is becoming a lens to focus the sense of injustice this transformation is creating. If the government fails to rise to the challenge this sense of injustice represents, and instead continues to dismiss it with crude repressive methods, fear of dissent may well become a self-fulfilling prophechy.

Gerry van Klinken edits 'Inside Indonesia'. A detailed account of the HKBP conflict till late 1994 can be read in Human Rights Watch/ Asia, 'The limits of openness', chapter 7.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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