Christian churches in Aceh province, Indonesia were attacked by Islamic extremists frustrated with the local government’s delays in demolishing 21 ‘illegal’ churches.
The attacks, which are believed to have been premeditated, took place at two Christian churches in Aceh Singkil district. The mob of around 500 protestors burned the first church to the ground and then moved on to a second church which was being protected by members of the Christian community.
Violence erupted when the protestors, carrying axes, sticks and machetes, were confronted by the community protecting the church. It was during this attack that a member of the Christian community was killed, according to Aceh Police Chief Husein Hamidi, “after being shot in the head with an air rifle.” Four others were injured in the attack, including a soldier.
Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim country, has a significant Christian population of around 20 million. The Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the country had a strong history of coping with its diverse religions until the outbreak of regional religious conflicts at the end of the 20th Century.
A 2012 report on state-imposed religious restrictions indicated that Indonesia has become less tolerant towards minority religions over the past decade and the report places Indonesia among the most religiously restrictive states in the world, alongside such unenviable company as Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
These recent church attacks took place in Aceh Province, which is a special territory and the only province in Indonesia to enforce Sharia law. The Islamic law is enforced by ‘morality police’ who are responsible for punishing those who violate behavior regulations. Since 2014 these laws have been legally applied to non-Muslims in Aceh province, meaning non-Muslims can be prosecuted for inappropriate dress, adultery or drinking alcohol. Punishment for breaking Sharia law can include being whipped, stoned or having their limbs severed.
Regulations in Aceh province are making it increasingly difficult for religious minorities to secure the necessary permits and licenses to legally build and operate places of worship. Non-Muslim places of worship require the agreement of 60 local residents of different faiths and permission from the local community’s Interfaith Communication Forum before they can obtain the necessary building permits. The local Interfaith Communication Forums often deny requests from Christian groups because of pressure from radical Muslim groups.
The forced closure of churches that do not have the necessary permits and licenses has become increasingly common. An Indonesian organization for religious tolerance has reported that as many as 40 churches are forced to close every year. Often when churches are closed the Christian congregation are ordered to tear down their own churches.
This most recent violence stems from local government inaction in demolishing 21 churches that have been operating ‘illegally’. It’s believed the attacks were orchestrated by an Islamic youth group that had previously threatened to take matters into their own hands if the church demolitions did not begin. In a press conference on Wednesday, Chief of National Police, Gen. Badrodin Haiti confirmed that the local government had agreed to begin demolishing the churches next week. There are fears that if local authorities do not follow through with the destruction of these churches, radical Muslim groups could engage in further attacks.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla were quick to condemn the attacks and have called for calm in the region. Widodo is considered a moderate Muslim leader and has often spoken on the need for religious tolerance. In an interview earlier this year with CNN, he explained that he wanted, ‘Indonesia to be an example of moderate Islam, Islam that has tolerance, good Islam. And I am sure that we are able to do so. In Indonesia, Islam and democracy can go together.”
And during an address to leaders at the sixth Indonesian Muslims Congress in Yogyakarta, he explained the need for religious tolerance in the country. “We have shown that tolerance and mutual respect is strong and we always take the middle ground,” he said.
Kalla, who just last year had praised Indonesia’s religious tolerance in a Christmas Day speech, called for greater understanding and suggested the government draw up new regulations to mandate tolerance with legal matters related to places of worship to avoid further attacks.
While the president’s vision of religious tolerance in Indonesia is clearly admirable, the current reality is a long way from these ideals. With the growth in religious extremism it will take considerably more than central government’s calls for moderation to end religious persecution and the continued destruction of Christian churches by regional governments and local radicals. Unless there is greater commitment to tackling the spread of radical thoughts and the prevalence of extremist groups, the growing tendency towards intolerance among the public could lead to an increase in violence towards minority groups.