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Authorities close Christian worship places after Islamist protests

Country/Region: Indonesia, South and East Asia

The authorities have sealed off 17 Christian places of worship in a semi-autonomous Indonesian province following a protest from hard line Islamist groups, who oppose the buildings.  

Aceh_Great_Mosque_4X3.jpg
Aceh is one of Indonesia’s most
Islamic provinces
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Agiorno99

The undung-undungs, which are small buildings not classified as churches, in the Aceh Singkil district of Aceh province were closed in the space of a week, starting on 2 May.

The move followed a protest on 30 April by groups including the Islamic Defenders Front and the Aceh Singkil Muslim Forum; they held a rally demanding the closure of the undung-undungs.

The decision was condemned by rights group Pro-Democracy People, whose spokesman Agusta Mukhtar, said:

The religious peace here has been shattered by this anarchistic action that seeks religious domination for an inflexible faith. This is a dark time in the history of religious freedom and tolerance in Aceh.

Aceh Singkil district head Razali Abdul Rahman said that his administration had acted independently of the groups’ demands, claiming that the buildings did not have permits and were drawing complaints from locals. He said:

It has nothing to do with the rallies. This is a move to maintain public order because the houses of worship have no permits and breach the regulation.

The sealing of houses of worship that run without permits is meant to avoid conflicts among the religious communities.

The authorities insist that only one church and four undung-undungs may be built in Singkil, which has the highest proportion of Christians – one sixth of the population (120,000) – of any district or city in Aceh. But this is the first time that they have taken action against Christian places of worship, suggesting that they have given in to pressure from the Islamist groups.

One of the sealed off undung-undungs had been open and used regularly for 38 years without any incident or complaint. There are 27 of the small prayer houses in Singkil, so more may now be closed to reduce the total to just four. 

Sondang Marbun, the head of Christian affairs at the provincial office of the Religious Affairs Ministry, has backed the closures, saying that he has previously reminded Christians in the district not to build any undung-undungs without a permit.

Aceh gained a measure of autonomy from the national government in 2001 following a prolonged Islamist insurgency. It has since introduced elements of sharia, which are enforced by special religious police. Aceh is the only one of Indonesia’s 32 provinces where sharia is officially permitted, and though non-Muslims have been exempted from its laws, hardliners are clearly exerting more influence, and the Church is coming under increasing attack.

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