Members of Pakpak Dairi Protestant Church hold a Sunday service on Sept. 6. (Photo supplied)
Christians in Indonesia's Aceh province whose church was burned down and demolished in 2015 have appealed to the National Human Rights Commission to settle the discrimination they claim to have faced.
The call follows the latest incident in which local authorities suspended the construction of the official residence for pastors from Pakpak Dairi Protestant Church in Aceh Singkil district.
Boas Tumangger, chairman of the Aceh Singkil Love Peace Forum, a Christian association, claims the local government requires that the construction of the house must follow regulations related to houses of worship, which require the approval of followers of other faiths.
"The government considers the house will harm interreligious harmony and has the potential to cause social conflict," he wrote in a letter to the human rights commission.
He questioned such accusations and said that it was the duty and responsibility of the government to reduce potential conflict among the community.
Tumangger said church representatives had spoken to the government on Aug. 27 but they were asked to stop construction and on Sept. 3 they received a first letter of warning.
The house was meant for pastors who will be ministering the community, which changes every five years, he told UCA News.
"We built it with money collected from the congregation," Tumangger said.
Saudan Berasa, head of the construction committee, gave assurances that the house will not be used for worship activities. "Therefore, it does not need to follow the rules for establishing places of worship," he said.
He said they would continue the development process and hoped the government would facilitate it.
Aceh, the only province that implements Sharia law in Indonesia, issued a regional regulation or qanun in 2016 requiring the construction of houses of worship to be signed by 140 congregants and 110 people from other faiths.
The regulation received strong protests from Christian groups and activists as it was tougher than the central government’s stipulation in a 2006 decree which only demanded the signatures of 90 congregants and 60 people from other faiths.
The regulation also requires written recommendations from several parties including village heads.
In 2015, a church was burned down by a mob and nine other churches were dismantled because they allegedly failed to follow regulations.
Tumangger said until now congregants whose churches were burned and demolished hold services in tents.
He said that while the case of burning and demolishing the church had not yet been resolved, the case against the pastor's house was exacerbating the discrimination they faced.
"We always feel insecure and anxious about this discrimination,” he said.
Beka Ulung Hapsara, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, said it had received the complaint and had asked the Ministry of Religion and the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs to address the issue.
He said the biggest obstacle at this time was the government’s policy.
"We are currently gathering facts in the field as material for recommendations and dialogue with the government so that the solution to the problem in Aceh Singkil can be permanent," he told UCA News.