Authorities Close Down Churches in Aceh, Indonesia

Provincial official issues veiled threat to congregations that do not comply.

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – At the behest of Islamist extremists, authorities in Indonesia’s Aceh Province have forbidden nine churches to worship, saying they are “illegal.”

Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, deputy mayor of Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh Province, called pastors of nine churches and five Buddhist monasteries for a meeting on Monday (Oct. 15), said Veryanto Sitohang, head of rights group United North Sumatra Alliance.

Representatives from five of the nine churches attended the meeting, and they were forced to sign an “agreement” saying they would stop all activities because they did not have official permits – obtainable only by meeting highly improbable requirements – from local governments, Sitohang told Morning Star News. The other four churches will also be told to sign the agreement soon, he added.

Sitohang said that the Aceh official told the church leaders that if they did not sign the agreement, the government would not be responsible for their security.

The agreement was projected as a measure to protect the safety of the religious minorities,” Sitohang said.

All nine churches were registered with Indonesia’s Department of Religion, Veryanto said, but officials in Aceh also require local licensing that is difficult to obtain and selectively enforced, thus providing a pretext for local Islamists to close down churches.

Even compliance with local regulations does not guarantee that a church will be allowed to function, however, as authorities and extremist groups also cite 1979 and 2001 agreements between Muslims and Christians stipulating that only one church be built in each district. Those agreements were cited when Aceh Singkil closed down churches in May.

The Aceh official said on Monday that the nine churches should take their congregations to the four “official” churches in the city for Sunday services.

But this is not feasible, because these congregations come from different backgrounds,” said Sitohang.

On Friday (Oct. 12), a prominent Muslim cleric, Teungku Usman Kuta Krueng, a.k.a. Abu Kuta Krueng, asked the mayor of Banda Aceh to stop the activities of “illegal” churches and Buddhist monasteries, according to the local newspaper Serambi Indonesia. The cleric had been briefed about the churches and monasteries by the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (locally known as the FPI).

After Monday’s meeting, the Aceh division of the FPI said its members would keep an eye on all the “illegal” churches to prevent them from violating the “agreement.”

The closed churches had been operating for years.

The religious atmosphere in the city is tense, and we do not know where we will go on Sunday for worship,” a pastor who requested anonymity told Morning Star News. “We are confused. The government must provide us with some solution.”

Aceh is a special region that has the highest proportion of Muslims in Indonesia and is partially governed by sharia (Islamic law). Gubernatorial Regulation No. 25/2007 makes it extremely difficult for non-Muslim groups to get permits for building a new house of worship. A petition must be signed by at least 150 worshippers who must provide copies of their identity cards. It must also be supported by 120 other local residents.

Among the churches closed were the Surabaya Pentecostal Church (Gereja Pentakosta Pusat Surabaya); Bethel Church of Indonesia (Gereja Bethel Indonesia); the Pentecostal Church of Indonesia (Gereja Pentakosta di Indonesia); the Christian Congregation of Indonesia (Jemaat Kristen Indonesia); the Holy Christian Church  of Indonesia (Gereja Kristen Kudus Indonesia); the Victory of Faith Church of Indonesia (Gereja Kemenangan Iman Indonesia); and the Tabernacle of David Christian Church (Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud).

About 98 percent of the population in the city of Banda Aceh is Muslim. Aceh Province has 4.4 million Muslims, a little over 50,000 Protestants and about 3,300 Catholics, according to the Central Statistics Agency.

In May, 17 churches in Aceh’s Singkil Regency were closed down by the local administration. These closures were ordered by Regent Razali A.R. in a letter signed on April 30, which asked members of the congregations themselves to tear down the church buildings. The order came following a protest by members of the FPI at the regency office the same day.

Aceh turned more intolerant after the election of a hard-line Islamic governor in April. The FPI has said authorities in all areas in Aceh should close down “illegal” churches.

Closures of and attacks on churches are not uncommon in other parts of Indonesia either. The Gereja Kristen Indonesia (the GKI Yasmin Church) in the city of Bogor and the Philadelphia Batak Christian Protestant Church in Bekasi, both near Jakarta in West Java Province, remain sealed by their respective authorities for months despite Supreme Court orders in their favor.

With about 210 million Muslims, Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. While the majority of the Muslims are from the Shafi’i school of the Islamic jurisdiction, which is considered fairly moderate, Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood approaches to Islam took root in 1942 during the Indonesian War of Independence from the Dutch Empire.


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