A mob of around 750 Muslims carrying axes, sticks, and machetes set fire to a church in a Christian enclave of Indonesia’s Aceh province and attempted to attack another, taking the law into their own hands as they alleged the churches did not have proper permits.
Last week, an Islamic youth group held a demonstration and demanded that churches without official permits be torn down. Local authorities bowed to their demands and agreed to dismantle the churches, but before they could implement the order, the mob set fire to a church in Suka Makmur village at noon on Tuesday (13 October).
The mob then turned to another church, but clashed with security officials and a group of people there. One man died after being shot with an air rifle and four others were injured.
President Joko Widodo has appealed for calm. “Stop the violence in Aceh Singkil. Any background of violence, especially religion and belief, destroys diversity,” he tweeted. Police say they have brought the situation under control and have detained around 30 people for questioning.
Some Christians are reported to have left, fearing more violence. In August, another church was burnt to the ground in Aceh.
There are at least 20 churches in the district, although it is unclear at this stage how many are threatened with closure.
According to a 2006 decree, a place of worship requires applicants to obtain signatures from 60 local households of different faiths in support of the new place of worship, approval from the local religious affairs office and local authorities, and recommendation from the local Interfaith Communication Forum.
The requirements make it extremely difficult for Christians to obtain building permits. Even though the decree was meant to apply only to new places of worship, local authorities are imposing it retrospectively to long-standing churches.
Police and government officials often bow to the demands of Islamist groups to close churches, and turn a blind eye to harassment, intimidation and violence against Christians. In Aceh province, sharia law is implemented and this is increasingly affecting the minority Christian population.
Before the early 1980s, Indonesia was a tolerant society where Christians, who make up at least 15% of the population, and Muslims lived as equals in peace and harmony. However, in the 1980s, as President Suharto’s autocratic regime became increasingly unpopular, he attempted to appeal to Indonesia’s Muslims by increasing the role of Islam in public life.
After Suharto’s resignation in 1998, Islamists attempted to make Indonesia subject to sharia, and the country saw a huge increase in targeted violence towards Christians. Central Sulawesi and the Maluku Islands saw an estimated 30,000 Christians killed and half a million driven out.
Although Article 28 of the country’s constitution guarantees every individual the right to religious freedom, laws have been repeatedly manipulated; hundreds of churches have been closed and Christians imprisoned.