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Aceh Christians face uphill battle for right to worship

The benefits of Indonesia's independence have not been felt by Christians in the Sharia-ruled region

Aceh Christians face uphill battle for right to worship

A woman is publicly caned in Banda Aceh on July 8 as punishment under Aceh province's Sharia laws for being caught in close proximity to her boyfriend. (Photo: AFP)

Indonesia turns 76 this month. Yet the fruits of independence have not been felt entirely by minority groups in many parts of the country.

Thousands of Christians and other religious minority groups remain ostracized and do not feel that the state is there to protect them against harassment.

In Aceh, a semi-autonomous region on the northern tip of Sumatra, Christians are under constant pressure.

Government data shows that the province has 5.3 million people, of whom more than 98 percent are Muslim. Christians only number about 53,000 or roughly 1 percent. They are mostly Protestants, with a small number of Catholics.

A region that completely operates under Islamic Sharia law leaves very little room — in most parts no room at all — for Christians to exercise their faith.

According to Radio Veritas Asia, most districts in Aceh are dominated by Muslims, except in Southeast Aceh district where more than 100 churches serve about 20,000 Christians. On the other hand, in Singkil district, where about 10,000 Christians live, the local government has allowed only one church and four chapels.

In the past seven years, at least 30 churches including Catholic ones have been demolished in Aceh, while permits for new ones are constantly rejected

The province has a special law or Qanun on building a house of worship, which stipulates that the establishment of a church requires the signature of at least 120 local Muslims. It bypasses the national joint ministerial decree that requires only at least 60 signatures of local Muslims.

This has forced Christians and other minority groups to lie low or face the threat of church attacks.

The worst attacks on Christians and churches in Aceh Singkil occurred in October 2015 when a church was burned and 20 others were demolished. One person died and four people were injured, while 2,000 Christians fled to neighboring North Sumatra.

The attack was triggered by a disagreement over the existence of these churches. Local authorities claimed the Christians had violated the “one church only” agreement. The rest were illegal, hence they had to be demolished.

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In the past seven years, at least 30 churches including Catholic ones have been demolished in Aceh, while permits for new ones are constantly rejected.

Early this month, a group of Christians in Singkil district, whose churches were burned and demolished six years ago, renewed their appeal to President Joko Widodo.

The Association of Journalists for Diversity (Sejuk) posted on its social media that some Christians were holding placards expressing disappointment over the government’s lack of action on their appeal for a decent house of worship.

 A Christian girl wrote: “It's not independence that we feel but pressure and injustice.” Another girl wrote: “Message for the president. Nine churches in Aceh Singkil were simply demolished. Christians want justice.”

As of now, the congregations conduct services in huts and tents. They hoped that Widodo and Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas listen to their plight.

But will there be a surprise for Christians in the Sharia-ruled region?

In Aceh under Sharia law, the region wants to maintain its Islamic identity with few or zero Christian symbols

Many people — Christians and Muslims alike — have expressed concerns over the unimproved situation of Christians, especially in Singkil district, who continue to face discrimination.

Observers say that Christians may continue to hope but may not gain church building permits soon.

Even in areas that do not impose Sharia law, Christians must wait for ages to get permits. St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Jakarta, which is run by Scheut Missionaries, had to wait for 31 years before a permit was granted this month. After their long wait, parishioners were able to break ground on Aug. 8.

In Aceh under Sharia law, the region wants to maintain its Islamic identity with few or zero Christian symbols.

Gujarat merchants introduced Islam to Aceh in the ninth century and it became the first Islamic kingdom in Indonesia. Sharia law has its origin in the pre-colonial period when the region was ruled by sultans aiming to strengthen its identity.

After Sharia law was dropped during the colonial period, efforts to reinstate it were made when Indonesia gained its independence. Momentum was gained when Aceh’s special autonomy status was granted in 2002. It was later supported by another law passed soon after the Indonesian government and insurgent group Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM) signed a peace pact in Helsinki, Finland, on Aug. 15, 2005, ending nearly 30 years of conflict.

A death sentence by stoning was proposed but rejected by ex-governor Irwandy Yusuf, a former GAM official

One of the crucial points was that GAM would stop its demand for independence. Instead, it could form a political party and contest local elections to determine the future of the province. Since then, the local government has had the absolute right to impose Sharia law to maintain peace and the status of the region as the “porch of Mecca” — a reference to the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad.

Indonesian laws are generally applied in Aceh. However, when it comes to Islamic teaching, the local government — acting on the advice of ulemas and members of Aceh regional council — has the absolute right to issue special bylaws that prohibit anti-Islamic practices. The regulations also permit controversial punishments such as caning. A death sentence by stoning was proposed but rejected by ex-governor Irwandy Yusuf, a former GAM official.

Caning started to gain global attention in 2013 when it was used to punish crimes such as gambling, adultery, sexual harassment, alcohol, homosexuality, rape and obscene and other immoral acts. At least six Christian men and women were whipped for selling alcohol and cockfighting.

Christians are not banned from living in Aceh provided they do not practice their faith obviously and don’t do what’s prohibited under Islamic law.

There is an unwritten rule in Aceh that prohibits Muslims from signing a document in favor of the Christian religion. Christians face a long wait to see new churches established in the region.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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