The Islamic authorities of Singkil in the Aceh province of Indonesia began the demolition of ten Christian churches deemed illegal under Sharia law because of a lack of the proper “building permits.”
Using clubs and hammers, police demolished the wooden structures of the three small churches, called “undung-undung,” as the Christian community looked on. Seven other churches are slated for destruction in the coming days.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, and the Aceh province in western Indonesia is the most Islamic region in the country. Aceh is known as the “Gateway to Mecca,” both because it is the westernmost tip of the Indonesian archipelago and thus a good starting point for the Islamic pilgrimage (hajj) and because of its long association with Islam.
In point of fact, local Christians have applied for building permits, or Izin Mendirikan Bangunan, on numerous occasions until they realized that the governing Islamic authorities were never going to provide one.
Paima Brutu, the pastor of one of the demolished churches, blames the government for the lack of permits: “We applied for permission to build a thousand times. At this point we want to know whether the government will ever allow us to have it.”
The chairwoman of Indonesia’s Churches Federation, Henriette Hutabarat-Lebang, said that people only build churches without the proper permits as a last resort.
“But in reality, [obtaining] a permit to build a house of worship is very difficult, and they often cannot be obtained [at all],” she said.
The government’s decision to destroy ten Christian churches came after Islamists demonstrated under the banner “Aceh Youth Concerned for Islam” several weeks ago, demanding the government take action again unlicensed churches.
Demonstrators complained that the number of churches built by Christians exceeds the maximum number stipulated by an agreement of 1979, which limited the number of Christian churches in Singkil to one, along with four “undung-undung” (small churches).
“There are now 23 undung-undung. It has become chaos,” said Singkil’s regent, Safriadi Manik.
Local Christians, however, cite growth in the local Christian population to justify the need for more churches. Based on data from Singkil’s Central Statistic Bureau, the Christian population in the area reached nearly 13,000 people in 2013.
Last week, a mob of hundreds of Islamist radicals torched two churches in Aceh. When Christians tried to defend their churches, a riot broke out, leaving one man dead and four others wounded.
“After burning the church, the crowd—made up mostly of members of the Muslim Youth Forum—tried to attack another but ran into opposition from Christians,” said Husein Hamidi, Aceh’s chief of police.
According to The Jakarta Post, thousands of people, mostly Christians, have fled Aceh Singkil regency for neighboring regencies in North Sumatra after the recent church burning, fearing an escalation of violence.
Aceh is the only Indonesian province under Sharia law, and tensions remains high between the majority Muslim population and minorities of other religions. Authorities have deployed soldiers in the places of the scheduled church demolitions to avoid further violence.
In February 2014, the Aceh provincial administration approved the Qanun Jinayat, obliging every Muslim and non-Muslim in Aceh to follow Sharia, the Islamic legal code.
“The qanun does indeed oblige everyone in Aceh to follow Sharia without exception,” said councilor Abdulah Saleh, who was involved in the deliberation of the qanun in the council.
Stricter laws, regulations, and norms have met with resistance from a large share of the local population. Among the decisions challenged by the people of Aceh are prohibitions against women wearing jeans or tight skirts, traveling astride motorcycles, dancing in public, and celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Authorities also decided to introduce a “curfew” for women, ostensibly to reduce sexual harassment.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has placed Indonesia on its “Tier 2” list for 2015, a designation for governments that engage in or tolerate serious violations of religious liberty.
Indonesia shares this dubious honor with nine other countries, including Afghanistan, Cuba, India, Russia, and Turkey.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.