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Aceh Christians take church dispute to Jakarta

They claim authorities' refusal to let them build churches violates their constitutional rights
Aceh Christians take church dispute to Jakarta

Protestants worship under a shelter covered with palm leaves in Aceh Singkil district. (Photo: sejuk.org)

Published: August 06, 2021 07:35 AM GMT
Updated: August 06, 2021 09:03 AM GMT

A group of journalists, activists and writers have called on the Indonesian government to settle disputes in which nine churches were demolished by a local authority in Aceh province

The churches — eight Protestant and one Catholic — were demolished in Aceh Singkil district in 2015.

District chiefs claimed the churches should not have been built because Aceh is predominantly Muslim and the only province in Indonesia that has implemented Sharia law.

They also claimed an agreement struck between local Muslims and Christian settlers in 1980 meant that only one church would be allowed in the district.

Ten churches were built, so nine had to be demolished, a district spokesman said.

However, the demolitions have forced thousands of Christians to worship under makeshift shelters.

Since their churches were demolished six years ago, they have been worshiping in shelters with no walls and palm leaves for a roof

“The local authorities blatantly trampled on these people’s rights,” Tantowi Anwari, spokesman for the Journalists Association for Diversity (SEJUK), told UCA News on Aug. 5.

He said members of SEJUK visited the Christians in July and were left feeling angry.  

“Since their churches were demolished six years ago, they have been worshiping in shelters with no walls and palm leaves for a roof,” Anwari said.

This was unacceptable, he said, adding that President Joko Widodo needed to step in and ensure their rights to worship as set out in the constitution.

Boas Tumangger from the Pakpak Dairi Protestant Christian Church in Aceh Singkil, said local authorities have ignored their protests for six years, so now was the time to take their case to Jakarta.  

Indonesia celebrates its Independence Day on Aug. 17 “but we are not independent because we still face discrimination and intolerance by local authorities,” he said.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, said the so-called 1980 agreement was preventing a solution being found at a local level. 

But this is a national problem in the context of religious tolerance, so it must be settled

“The best thing to do is let the national government handle it and tell the local authorities to give religious minorities their constitutional rights,” Naipospos told UCA News.

Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a member of a presidential unit promoting communal tolerance, said Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Quomas was now handling the case. 

He said the issue needs intense dialogue because Aceh is different from other regions as it has a high level of autonomy and implements Sharia.

“But this is a national problem in the context of religious tolerance, so it must be settled,” he told UCA News.

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