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Indonesia jailings point to Asian church property concerns

The report from Jakarta, Indonesia, reads “Church Leaders Imprisoned.” It immediately brings to mind Islamic extremists. The island chain on the Indian Ocean has the world’s largest Muslim population, and a 2002 bombing in Bali was linked to terrorists.

But the March 26 jailing of D.J. Pasaribu and brothers Alip and Miserimanto Djoehaeri — leaders of the Jalan Sumatera church — had nothing to do with Islam. A dispute over ownership of the church building sparked the arrests.

“The imprisonment of these good men … simply boils down to the greed of a few men,” missionary Winston Bolt told The Christian Chronicle.

Police arrested the three men for “assaulting a brother who was guarding the church property,” said Steve Cate, a missionary in Indonesia. “Pasaribu, Alip and Miserimanto say this is totally false.”

The conflict relates to a 1992 attempt by a former missionary to sell the property, used by the church for more than 30 years. The missionary’s potential buyer was a man “who seems to have very powerful connections with the law enforcement officials in Jakarta,” said Bolt, who is currently ministering in Batam, Indonesia.

The attempt failed, but the church didn’t properly secure the title to the property, leading to another attempt by the same buyer to take over the property — valued at 1.3 million U.S. dollars.

The buyer, who Bolt said “seems to have the title in his possession,” boarded up the fence surrounding the building. The three church leaders entered the premises, and the buyer had them arrested for breaking and entering, later adding assault charges.

Jalan Sumatera is not the first church in Asia involved in a property disputes. After World War II churches of Christ gave thousands of dollars to mission work in the East, church historian Earl Irvin West wrote in “The Search for the Ancient Order,” a series of books about churches of Christ.

Missionaries established churches and bought property, sometimes in individuals’ names since Asian governments didn’t recognize churches of Christ as legal entities. Today, missionaries say that the rising value of real estate — and faltering Asian economy — are strong temptations that can rob a church of its facilities.

In the 1950s missionary Ira Rice established a church in Singapore and raised money to purchase property, which rose dramatically in value the next half century.

The church on that property — the Moulmein congregation — didn’t receive the deed until November 2003 because of a lengthy legal battle with Rice, said missionary Dave Hogan.

Rice contended that the church had fallen into apostasy. After his death in 2001, the matter was resolved. The property is now in the care of five trustees from the Moulmein church, Hogan said.

Churches of Christ have no set policy regarding property ownership — especially in the mission field. Bob Waldron, executive director of Missions Resource Network, said that church leaders have asked his Dallas-based ministry to survey religious organizations for advice.

In 2002 the ministry published “Research Findings for Select Financial Issues in World Missions.” Researchers wrote that, “churches on the field should give sacrificially toward the purchase of the land and construction of a church building before receiving help from outside sources.”

If a church in the field receives outside help, a legal entity should hold the title for a time, the researchers wrote. That entity should consist of missionaries and national Christians if possible.

Before giving money, churches assisting in property purchases should adopt long-range plans to give the title to the church in the field when it demonstrates a degree of stability. This could mean the appointment of elders.

“This needs to be prayed over and agreed upon by all parties before any … funds are invested,” the researchers wrote. “Integrity should characterize every facet of this relationship.”

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