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Church row a 'dark time' for Aceh

Jakarta Globe - May 11, 2012

Nurdin Hasan, Banda Aceh – Another Christian house of worship has been sealed off in Aceh Singkil district, bringing the total since last week to 17 and marking a new low for religious intolerance in the staunchly Muslim province, a rights group said on Wednesday.

Agusta Mukhtar, a spokesman for the group Pro-Democracy People, said it was regrettable that the local authorities had sealed off the buildings following a protest on April 30 by hard-line groups including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which oppose the buildings.

"The religious peace here has been shattered by this anarchistic action that seeks religious domination for an inflexible faith," he said in a statement. "This is a dark time in the history of religious freedom and tolerance in Aceh."

Sixteen of the undung-undungs, small houses of worship not categorized as churches, were sealed off by district officials last week, on the pretext they had been built without proper permits. Another was closed off on Tuesday.

The authorities insist that only one church and four undung-undungs may be built in the entire district, despite one-sixth of its population of about 120,000 being Christian – the highest proportion of any district or city in Aceh.

Agusta blamed the authorities not just for acquiescing to the hard-liners, but also for failing to promote religious tolerance at the grassroots level to prevent hard-line sentiment from taking root.

He said it was the job of the district and provincial administrations, as well as the Religious Affairs Ministry, to prevent these kinds of acts of intolerance from flaring up in the first place.

Zaenal Abidin, the head of the team responsible for sealing off the buildings, said that the latest undung-undung to be sealed off was located in a majority-Christian village. "But because they didn't have a permit for it, we had to shut it down," he said.

He added that there had been "no significant protests" over the closure, and that his office had "given the residents guidance" as an admonishment for having built the undung-undung.

Sondang Marbun, the head of Christian affairs at the provincial office of the Religious Affairs Ministry, supported the officials in the district. He said the closures were warranted and that he had previously reminded Christians in Aceh Singkil not to build any undung-undungs without a permit.

He added that he would soon visit the district to see what the problem was all about and try to find a solution.