Human rights advocates and members of Aceh’s Christian minority are voicing concern about non-Muslims being subject to prosecution and punishment under the province’s newly expanded Sharia criminal code.
The Indonesian province on Oct. 23 expanded its Islamic criminal code, known as the Qanun Jinayat. Adultery, physical contact between an unmarried couple, rape and homosexual acts are among offenses under Islamic law that can now be punished with 10 to 200 lashes of the cane, depending on the crime.
But exposing non-Muslims to punishment under these new bylaws contradicts the spirit of sharia law, according to Zulfikar Muhammad, director of the Aceh Human Rights NGOs Coalition.
“This is a form of injustice to non-Muslims. It remains unclear if penalties for non-Muslims are the same as those for Muslims," he told BenarNews.
“Penalties in Islam are part of atonement. Would it be the right way to atone for one's sins if Qanun Jinayat is applied to non-Muslims?" Zulfikar said.
Samarel Telaumbanua, a Christian counselor at the provincial office of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said the bylaws should only apply to Muslims.
“It seems as coercion if it is also applicable to non-Muslims,” he told BenarNews.
He expressed hope that the issue wouldn’t aggravate relations between Aceh’s Muslim majority and members of other religions, and that the government would maintain tolerance and harmony between different faiths in the province.
Lately, tensions between Muslims and Christian have risen after a mob burned down a church and a man was shot dead in Aceh Singkil regency, causing some 8,000 panicked residents to flee to a neighboring regency for several days.
Subsequently, Muslim groups pressured local authorities to raze up to 10 churches in the area that supposedly lacked proper building permits.
Non-Muslims, including both Indonesian and foreign tourists, can be prosecuted under the Qanun Jinayat if caught committing one of the aforementioned acts with a Muslim, and if Indonesia’s criminal code (KUHP) does not include the alleged crime.
Aceh has a degree of autonomy from the central government, and is the only Indonesian province that implements Sharia law. It has its own police force dedicated to enforcement of statutes, such as a conservative public dress code.
Some 50 to 60 local governments out of more than 6,800 across Indonesia, however, have adopted Sharia-inspired regulations, according to the U.S. State Department’s “International Religious Freedom Report” for 2014.
Under the expanded Qanun Jinayat, non-Muslims can be arrested for khalwat – an unmarried couple being alone in a secluded place.
Khalwat is not in the national criminal code. Nor is adultery, accusing others of adultery, or homosexuality, according to Saifuddin Bantasyam, a legal expert at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.
“In accordance with the current norms, non-Muslims now can be charged with the Qanun Jinayat if they commit crimes unregulated in the KUHP," he told BenarNews.
“The Qanun doesn't say that it is only applicable to Acehnese but to everyone who violates the law in Aceh," he said.
‘We can coexist’
The director of the Acehnese chapter of one of Indonesia’s largest and most influential Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – which had pushed for expansion of the bylaws – tried to allay concerns that they could erode relations between Aceh’s various religious communities.
“The fact is that Muslims in Aceh do tolerate religious freedom and we can coexist without any problems," Teungku Faisal Ali, who heads NU’s provincial chapter, told BenarNews.
“We don't want to raise the impression that Islamic law in Aceh infringes on the rights of non-Muslims …,” he said.
“It doesn't [force] sharia law on non-Muslims because they are free to observe their own faiths and beliefs.”