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Closed churches in Aceh 'did not have permits'

Straits Times - June 17, 2012

Zakir Hussain, Jakarta – Indonesia says several churches in Aceh were ordered shut not because of deepening religious conflict or intolerance, but because they did not have local permits.

The buildings were not approved for religious use, Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi told The Straits Times. Officials are making efforts to resolve the matter amicably, he added, stressing that action will be taken should any parties resort to violence.

The episode comes at a time when permits for new places of worship are getting harder to obtain, with similar standoffs in other regions.

"The state is giving up its authority [to decide] to the people," said Reverend Gomar Gultom, secretary-general of the Indonesian Council of Churches. "The government should instead use its authority to facilitate the approval process."

Under nationwide regulations introduced in 2006, new houses of worship must get the approval of 90 worshippers and 60 local residents from other faiths before they can commence operations.

The regulations were introduced to reduce inter-religious conflict, in response to complaints of bias from citizens over an earlier and more stringent rule in place since 1969. But observers say disputes continue.

In Aceh, which has limited autonomy and where limited sharia law operates, the regulations are tighter. Setting up non-Muslim places of worship requires a congregation of 150 and approval from 90 Muslims. Mosques in the overwhelmingly Muslim province face no such restrictions.

As a result, Christians in Aceh Singkil regency – who make up 10 percent of the 150,000 population – recently said that their churches had been ordered to close by the acting regent.

Some of the churches had been operating for decades, while others were more recent. They are now sealed off, but people continue to worship inside while others stand guard outside.

The local branch of the Islamic Defenders Front, a nationwide grouping whose members are known for vigilante activities, had taken issue with these churches, claiming they violated the law.

Irfan Abubakar, director of the centre for the study of religion and culture at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, notes that some Muslim communities are becoming more exclusive, and it is increasingly difficult for non-Muslims to build places of worship in areas like Aceh and Padang.

Churches in more mixed cities like Bekasi and Bogor also face similar problems. "There must be neutrality and firmness on the part of the government to uphold the Constitution and the right of minorities to practice their faiths," Irfan said.

He is also concerned that if local tensions are allowed to fester, distrust among people of different faiths will spread to other regions.

Slamet Effendy Yusuf, chairman of Indonesia's biggest Muslim organization Nadhlatul Ulama, said Muslims already face difficulty building new mosques in predominantly Christian districts like West Timor and Papua.

He is trying to bring together various religious leaders to discuss problems frankly, and is going on a roadshow to meet local leaders. "This is an Indonesian issue," he said. "We have to solve it together, but it won't be instant either."