Bowing to the demands of Muslim hardliners, authorities in Indonesia’s Aceh province tore down three simply made churches of wood, concrete and tin, on Monday (19 October). A further seven churches are set to be demolished in the coming days.
Earlier in the month, an Islamic youth group held a demonstration demanding the closure of churches in Aceh which do not have official permits to exist. Then, taking the law into their own hands, hundreds of angry Muslims arrived on motorcycles and in pickups and cars, armed with axes and machetes, and set fire to three churches last week.
On Sunday (18 October), government officials met with church leaders, who together agreed to close ten churches, according to the demands of Islamist hardliners.
Authorities had originally requested church leaders to demolish the churches themselves. “How can we do it?” asked Paima Berutu, a church leader reeling from the decision reached. “It is impossible [for us to take it down] … Some of us watched [the demolition] from afar, man and women. It was painful.”
His church has requested the required permit several times, but had been refused on every occasion. 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.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, and the requirements make it almost impossible for church leaders to obtain the necessary permits to function. This is especially the case in Aceh province, the only province to have implemented sharia law. Over 1,000 churches have been closed since the introduction of the decree in 2006.
Thousands of Christians have fled their villages in Aceh province fearing further violence against them. An estimated 75% of one village left, but some later returned to their homes.
Despite the fact that the country’s constitution provides for the religious freedom of all, 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.