Churches Without Permits Razed in Aceh

Dewi Safitri
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151030-ID-hammer-620 A policeman takes a sledgehammer to a church wall during the demolition of several churches by the local government in Aceh Singkil regency, in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Oct. 19, 2015.

Updated at 5:55 p.m. ET on 2015-11-11

An uneasy calm has settled over Aceh Singkil, a regency in Indonesia’s Aceh province, after its Christian minority allowed local officials to demolish 10 churches following an outbreak of communal violence there.

The deal was touted as a solution for reducing tensions between the regency’s tiny Christian community and the Muslim majority, after a mob burned down a local church earlier this month and a man was shot dead in the uproar.

As part of the deal, local Christian leaders acknowledged that the churches lacked official permits and agreed that local authorities could raze them.

But they are asking for clarity about whether they need to follow central government rules, or more stringent ones set by local leaders of the semi-autonomous province, on this point.

A 2006 decree issued by the ministries of Religious Affairs and Home Affairs stipulates that people who plan to a build a house of worship must show proof of communal support by obtaining signatures from 60 local residents.

The province’s rules require at least 150 signatures from locals.

“Which one should we obey: the ministerial decree or the gubernatorial one?” Ferdinan Pandiangan, a Catholic leader in Aceh, told BenarNews.

“We respect central government rules set forth in the Joint Ministerial Decree, but we need clarification of rules that have been derived from it,” he said.

‘No firm action from the authorities’

A conservative brand of Islam pervades Aceh, the only Indonesian province where Sharia law is in force, but religious minorities face challenges too in obtaining permits elsewhere in Indonesia.

In the past eight years, 316 houses of worship were demolished, mostly because of conflicts over permits, according to the Setara Foundation, a Jakarta-based NGO.

According to Ihsan Ali Fauzi, a researcher who recently completed a study on the issue, communal tensions over construction of churches and worship spaces usually hinge on legal permits.

More important, argues Ihsan, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy, at Paramadina University in South Jakarta, is a failure of local governments to enforce the regulations around building permits consistently and fairly.

The absence of this, he says, only encourages vigilantism and violence.

“Their actions range from protests to demolitions,” he told BenarNews, referring to vigilantes. “But there is no firm action from the authorities.”

He cited the case of a conflict around efforts by GKI Yasmin, a Christian congregation in Bogor, West Java, to build a church.

Although the Indonesian Supreme Court ruled that the congregation had a valid permit for constructing a church, the government of Bogor sided with local Muslims who opposed the project.

The local government’s decision not to uphold GKI Yasmin’s permit did not help ease inter-communal tensions, Ihsan said.

On the other hand, Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is an example of a local official who has consistently enforced the rules in a non-selective manner, according to Ihsan.

Basuki, who is nicknamed Ahok, has ordered his staff to seal mosques and churches that lack permits. Ahok is a Christian.

‘It won’t satisfy everyone’

Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia’s top Islamic clerical body, agrees that enforcing the law around building permits for mosques, churches and temples is critical to preventing conflict between communities of different faiths.

But the recent tensions in Aceh Singkil were not the result of government intolerance toward a minority, Ma’ruf said, noting that the 10 churches were built without permits.

The Joint Ministerial Decree should not be blamed either, he said. The MUI leader was among religious leaders who advised the two ministries on crafting the decree nine years ago.

“If a conflict surfaces, that means the decree has been violated,” Ma’ruf told BenarNews.

“The regulation was a compromise. It won’t satisfy everyone. But it has been approved,” he added.

Ihsan, the researcher, says the decree contains an often overlooked clause, whose enforcement could help prevent communal conflict. The clause protects the right of Indonesians of all faiths to conduct their religious activities safely, he said.

“Article 28 of the decree says that, in the case of a conflict, the central government must guarantee that worship activities continue. The spirit of the decree is not to limit, but to help,” Ihsan said.

An earlier version incorrectly stated that people who plan to build a house of worship must obtain signatures from 90 local residents.


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