Islamist Hard-Liners Attack Indonesian Churches

Local authorities often cooperate with vigilantes who demand church closures.

epa04976896 Security forces inspect the scene of a burned Church in Aceh Singkil, Indonesia, 14 October 2015. According to reports, a man was killed and three Churches were set ablaze during clashes between hundreds of hardliner Islamists and local Christians in the province of Aceh.  EPA/HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK
epa04976896 Security forces inspect the scene of a burned Church in Aceh Singkil, Indonesia, 14 October 2015. According to reports, a man was killed and three Churches were set ablaze during clashes between hundreds of hardliner Islamists and local Christians in the province of Aceh. EPA/HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK

Parishioners in their Sunday best — red dresses, purple sarongs, and intricate batik — gathered barefoot amidst the palms for an outdoor prayer meeting. Some cried. This wasn’t an ordinary Sunday: Charred remains were all that endured of the church where Indonesian Christians from Suka Makmur village usually held services. A pulpit emblazoned with a white cross still stood amidst the ashes and strewn sheets of burnt corrugated metal. Policemen armed with rifles stood guard as those assembled prayed.

In the days that followed, versions of this scene played out in towns across Aceh Singkil, a district in Aceh, the Indonesian province on the northernmost end of Sumatra.

On Oct. 13, 20 motorcycles, three pickups, and three cars rolled up to the church in Suka Makmur, carrying a mob wielding axes and machetes. They torched the building. The group of Muslim hard-liners had apparently had enough of their Christian neighbors’ open displays of faith. The mob then turned to another church nearby, which parishioners decided to defend themselves. Fighting ensued, a Muslim attacker got killed, and police and soldiers were called in to defuse the tensions. The mob left three churches smoldering.

The attackers said they had turned on the churches because they had been built without permits — a common excuse for crimes of religious intolerance in Indonesia, where permits are intermittent and enforcement is lax. The provincial government, while not condoning the violence, seemed to accept the mob’s demands. Just days after the attack, the province said it would sanction the destruction of 10 unpermitted churches. Meanwhile, over 1,300 police officers and soldiers were deployed to protect other churches, both Catholic and Protestant, and to keep the peace. Government employees destroyed the first three of the doomed churches on Monday, using sledgehammers.

Indonesia — the fourth largest country by population, with the largest Muslim populace, and the nation with a population closest in size to that of the United States — protects religious freedoms constitutionally. Christians make up some 7 percent of the country’s 256 million inhabitants. The overriding majority of Indonesians are moderate, live-and-let-live Sunni Muslims. Many observe forms of Islam inflected heavily with local traditions. Robust Christian communities flourish throughout the archipelago, as do Hindu enclaves that can trace lineages back to a Hindu-Buddhist era long before the arrival of Islam.

In recent years, some minority groups, especially in provinces where hard-line Muslims organizations hold increasing sway, have experienced an uptick in violent, intolerant confrontations, often backed by local authorities.

Indonesia became a democracy in 1998. The transition brought a renaissance of Islam in public life, as Indonesians began to express themselves more freely than they had been able to under strongman Suharto, who ruled for 31 years after the ouster of Indonesian founding father Sukarno in 1967. In the late 1990s, radical Islamist groups, most prominent among them the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), began to gain traction in some provinces. The FPI earned a reputation for going out of its way to make life difficult for Christians and Muslim minority groups, like Indonesia’s small Shia and Ahmadiyya communities, and for acts of low-level religious vigilantism, like smashing up the beer coolers in convenience stores during Ramadan. (This year Indonesia banned, and in short order reinstated, beer sales at convenience stores).

Since the passage of a “religious harmony” law in 2006 that requires minority religious groups to collect signatures from the local majority group before building houses of worship, the situation in some parts of the archipelago has taken a turn for the worse. In West Java and other provinces where hard-liners have developed close ties to local police and government, church closures have become commonplace. In majority Christian areas such as Papua, where support for independence from Indonesia is widespread, Muslims have experienced increasing intolerance.

The 2006 law “triggered the rise of discrimination and violence against religious minorities in Indonesia,” Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono told Foreign Policy.

More than 1,000 Indonesian Christian churches have been shuttered since 2006. “It shows the failures of the religious harmony regulation,” Harsono said. “It discriminates [against] minorities, thus making way for the majority, mostly Muslim hard-liners in Indonesia, to pressure the government to close down churches. If the government refuses, they will take the discriminatory law into their own hands.”

That’s just what’s happening in Aceh. After the mob attacks, thousands of Christians fled Aceh Singkil to neighboring districts, some crossing into North Sumatra province, with help from police and the army. Around 75 percent of one village left, although some residents have since returned. Over the weekend, the Jakarta Post reported that 7,000 people, around 1,000 of them toddlers, were staying in shelters out of fear that violence against Christians might escalate. Authorities, even as they carry out the will of the mob and destroy additional churches, have named a number of suspects in the attack. The congregations in question agreed to the state-sanctioned closures, although they didn’t have much of a choice. They will have an opportunity to apply for new permits.

Although a number of Indonesian provinces have seen intolerance at the village, city, or district level, the incidents in Aceh take on a special resonance because the semi-autonomous province — where a bloody civil war went on for decades until the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which killed 170,000 people in Aceh and left 500,000 homeless, catalyzed a peace deal between the government and rebels, signed in 2005 — is the only place in Indonesia where the provincial government is permitted to enforce a form of Shariah law, which elsewhere would be forbidden by the Indonesian constitution. Dozens of people have been caned in the province this year, for offenses like gambling and adultery.

Tensions between Muslims and Christians in Aceh Singkil, a diverse district, go back a long way. In 1979, the local government tried to demand that Christians limit their places of worship to a church and four chapels, although 14 churches were operating in the area at the time. In 2012, the FPI closed 19 churches in a single week, claiming that they were not in accordance with the 2006 law, although all of the churches in question predated it, some dating back to Japanese rule or the Dutch colonial period.

Aceh is a land of contradictions. Across Indonesia, marijuana possession leads to harsh prison terms (absent the requisite bribes), and importation can carry a penalty of execution by firing squad. But in Aceh, marijuana is sold openly, and people even put it in their noodles. At least three churches operate freely in Banda Aceh, the province’s capital. But restrictive permitting laws make opening new Christian places of worship a challenge, and the situation for Christians varies vastly from district to district, especially in the province’s rugged rural areas, where coffee, palm oil, and fishing sustain remote communities.

Aceh has religious tolerance regulations on the books, but those don’t always influence the facts on the ground. Given the province’s partial autonomy, there is only so much the central government in Jakarta can do to reign in the problem. “Stop 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,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo tweeted. But without change to the religious harmony law and a top-down imperative to stop church closures over trumped-up permit issues propagated by Islamist hard-liners, the situation for Christians in Aceh and other provinces will likely remain tenuous.

Photo credit: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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