The discovery that a regent in Aceh ordered 20 places of worship closed in April is raising concerns that growing intolerance will trigger communal conflicts.
The closures were ordered by Aceh Singkil Acting Regent Razali AR in a letter signed on April 30 that also ordered members of the congregations to tear down the churches by themselves.
“The local administration says that if the church members refuse to comply, the administration itself will demolish the buildings,” Veryanto Sitohang of the United North Sumatra Alliance, a human rights group, said in Jakarta on Tuesday.
“The deadline for the demolition was June 8. It has been a few days since the deadline, but nothing has happened so far,” Veryanto said.
Razali ordered the closure of 17 Protestant churches, two Catholic churches and one place of worship belonging to followers of a local nondenominational faith.
He issued the letter following a protest by members of the hard-line Islam Defenders Front (FPI) at the regency office on the same day.
The group alleged that the establishments violated community agreements signed in 1979 and 2001 by Muslim and Christian leaders in the regency.
One of the affected ministers said the agreements were signed under force.
“Church officials signed the documents because they were under threat. The documents said that the Christians are only allowed to have one church and four undung-undung in the regency,” Erde Barutu, the minister of the Pakpak Dairi Christian Protestant Church in Aceh Singkil, said.
Undung-undung refer to small non-denominational places of worship.
Erde said the number of Christians living in the regency had increased significantly since 1979, and currently topped 15,000.
According to the Central Statistics Agency, the population of Aceh was comprised of 4,413,244 Muslims, 50,309 Protestants and 3,315 Catholics in 2010.
After the closures, there are currently only two churches open in Aceh Singkil, both built after 2000. Most of the churches slated for demolition were built in 1930s and 1940s.
Erde said that members of the congregation of most of the churches continued to perform religious services inside the sealed buildings, while other members, some of whom were armed, remained on guard outside.
Meanwhile, Sunday religious services for children have been cut short due for security reasons.
Separately, Tigor Padang from the Aceh Singkil Christian Communications Forum said that church officials have sent letters to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, several ministries and the National Police to protest the closures and scheduled demolitions.
Only the Law and Human Rights Ministry has responded, Tigor said.
A team from the North Sumatra government’s Law and Human Rights Agency visited the churches on June 7.
“They said that they would report their findings to the law and human rights minister,” Tigor said.
Erde said that if the situation worsened in Aceh Singkil, local Christians would set up a blockade of the regency from North Sumatra. The border between Aceh Singkil and North Sumatra lies in some Christian-dominated villages, such as Keras village in Suro subdistrict.
Separately, Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi said that he was not aware that the acting regent had ordered the places of worship to be closed and demolished.
Gamawan said that he would contact the acting regent to ask for clarification, adding that citizens had a right to worship as long as they complied with regulations.
“Churches must not be demolished if the officials have fulfilled the requirements. If they don’t have building permits, they must obtain them first. And if the local administration refuses to issue the permits, we must find out the reason,” Gamawan said.
The dispute in Aceh adds to the long list of incidents of religious intolerance in the nation.
In Bekasi, West Java, members of the congregation of the Filadelfia Batak Protestant Churches (HKBP) continue to be regularly assaulted and harassed by Muslims as the parishioners try to conduct Sunday services.
The Bekasi regency sealed off the church site in 2010 after local residents objected to the construction of the church. The regency has refused to open the site even after the Bandung State Administrative Court ruled in favor of HKBP Filadelfia.
Members of the GKI Yasmin congregation face similar harassment in Bogor, West Java.
Various human rights groups have reported cases of attacks on Ahmadis as well, including congregations in Cikeusik, Banten, and Tangerang. (tas)