The debris of a burnt Christian church is seen in Aceh Singkil district on Oct. 14, a day after a man was killed in violent clashes that saw the church burnt to the ground by hundreds of armed men in Indonesia's conservative Islamic province of Aceh. (Photo by Munandar/AFP)
Thousands of Protestants and Catholics in Indonesia's Aceh province fled their homes following an Oct. 13 arson attack on a Christian church.
At least one person was killed and dozens injured in clashes that broke out when a group of Islamic fundamentalists attempted to burn down a second church in Aceh Singkil district, local police said.
Capuchin Father Alfons Pandiangan of St. Michael's parish in neighboring North Sumatra province told ucanews.com that several hundred people fled to his parish for protection.
"Since last night there are both Christians and Catholics who come here. There are already hundreds of people," he told ucanews.com Oct. 14. "The others will most likely arrive in the evening. We are cooperating with the government to help them."
"They chose to flee Singkil, especially mothers and children," he said.
The Rev. Erde Brutu from Pakpak Dairi Protestant Church, where the attack occurred, said at least 8,000 Christians fled from the region.
"They fled to their family's home in the neighboring province of North Sumatra," he said.
Aceh Singkil police chief Budi Samekto said that some 20 people have been arrested for possible involvement in the violence.
"We're still investigating whether those arrested were involved or not," he said.
The Rev. Brutu, who was at the location when the clash occurred, said the congregation was forced to fight their assailants because they wanted to save the church.
The burning of the church is a continuation of demands made in early October by Islamic fundamentalists who want illegal churches to be permanently closed.
Local officials had announced plans to close 10 Christian churches operating without the necessary permits, but the fundamentalists want the churches closed immediately, the Rev. Brutu said.
According to a controversial 2006 statute, church officials are required to provide a list of names and signatures of 90 congregation members and receive written support from at least 60 local residents along with the support of a village chief before being granted official permission to construct a church. In May 2012, the local government began closing what it deemed to be illegal churches.
But the Rev. Brutu said the majority of the churches were built long before the legislation was enacted.
"The churches were already built in the 1930s. The youngest church was built in 2001, while the regulation first appeared in 2006," he said.
Josef Roy Benedict, a campaigner with rights group Amnesty International, said he was "deeply concerned about the failure of local police to prevent the attacks."
He also emphasized that the decision to dismantle the churches is a clear violation of the right to religious freedom.
"Amnesty International calls on the government of President Joko Widodo to take immediate steps to put an end to the rising tide of repression against religious minorities in Aceh," he said.
Father Pandiangan said the conflict was triggered by radical elements operating in the province.
"There is no problem with our relations with Muslims at the grassroots level," he said.
“We want the government to correct the rules and policies that threaten the harmony that is already maintained at the grassroots level," he said.
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