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Jakarta Post

Thousands leave Aceh after church burning

  • Hotli Simanjuntak and Apriadi Gunawan

    The Jakarta Post

Aceh Singkil, Aceh/Medan | Thu, October 15 2015 | 06:00 pm Sectarian violence: A woman walks past what remains of HKI Suka Makmur Protestant Church in Aceh Singkil, Aceh, which was set alight on Wednesday. A mob of native Acehnese attacked two churches they deemed illegal, triggering unrest that claimed two lives and forced about 4,000 people, mostly Christians from North Sumatra, to flee their homes.(JP/Hotli Simanjuntak)(JP/Hotli Simanjuntak)

Sectarian violence: A woman walks past what remains of HKI Suka Makmur Protestant Church in Aceh Singkil, Aceh, which was set alight on Wednesday. A mob of native Acehnese attacked two churches they deemed illegal, triggering unrest that claimed two lives and forced about 4,000 people, mostly Christians from North Sumatra, to flee their homes.( JP/Hotli Simanjuntak )

Thousands of people, mostly Christians, have left Aceh Singkil regency, Aceh, for neighboring regencies in North Sumatra after an Islamic group attacked a village and set fire to a church.

The attackers, grouped under the Aceh Singkil Islamic Care Youth Students Association ( PPI ), arrived in Suka Makmur village, Gunung Meriah district, Aceh Singkil, in several trucks on Tuesday afternoon and set alight the Huria Kristen Indonesia ( HKI ) Church, which they considered to be unlicensed.

Hundreds of police and military officers who had earlier been deployed to the village failed to prevent the attack as they were outnumbered. One of the attackers, identified as Samsul, was shot dead when Christians, the majority in the village, tried to defend their church.

Samsul, 21, a resident of Bulu Sema village, Suro Makmur, died from an air rifle wound, while three other attackers were injured and were taken to the regency'€™s general hospital for treatment.

The church was one of 10 in the regency that was protested by the Islamic group. At a recent meeting at the regency office between the protesters, the churches'€™ board members and local officials, it was reportedly agreed that the churches would be demolished on Oct. 19.

After the attack, about 75 percent of the villagers moved to other areas, with many houses in Suka Makmur left empty and locked up.

'€œWe are still afraid that an incident could occur again if [the situation is] not handled properly,'€ congregation member Silaban said on Wednesday.

The police recorded that 3,433 people had moved to Central Tapanuli regency and 976 to Pakpak Bharat regency, both in North Sumatra.

Many parties have denounced the attack in Aceh, the only province in the country to implement sharia.

'€œStop violence in Aceh Singkil. Any act of violence, whatever the reasons behind it, not to mention if it is related to religion and faith, will kill diversity '€”Jkw,'€ President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo said on Wednesday on his Twitter account @jokowi.

Jokowi has ordered Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and National Police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti to take immediate action to stop violence and promote peace in the regency.

Badrodin acknowledged that the National Police had foreseen such an attack but had not readied enough security personnel on Tuesday to protect the church from the attackers, estimated to have numbered 500 to 700 people.

'€œWe knew [about conflict involving the church] from four months ago. This is why I truly regret the fact that the arson happened,'€ Badrodin said on Wednesday.

The police have questioned 45 people connected to the incident.

The Indonesian Ulema Council ( MUI ) also denounced the attack and discouraged Muslims in Aceh from taking part in any activities that could incite a larger conflict between Islamic and Christian communities in the region.

'€œFirst of all, the burning will never be justified. Even if the church committed a violation, let the local authorities solve the problem according to the existing rules,'€ MUI chairman Ma'€™ruf Amin told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

The Wahid Institute recorded 158 incidents of religious rights violations throughout 2014, with 78 percent enacted by non-state actors.

Meanwhile, Setara Institute research director Ismail Hasani condemned the incident as a violation of human rights which was facilitated by the local administration.

Ismail argued that similar incidents in Aceh, namely in 1979, 2001 and 2012, were caused by a discriminatory 1979 agreement between Muslim and Christian communities that stipulated there would be only one church and four small Christian houses of worship in Aceh Singkil.

Fedina S. Sundaryani, Ina Parlina, Haeril Halim and Margareth S. Aritonang also contributed to this story from Jakarta.

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