Hotli Simanjuntak, Banda Aceh – Allegations of widespread proselytizing by Christian missionaries and the presence of illegal churches have prompted the Banda Aceh municipal administration to act quickly to prevent religious conflict from undermining peace in Aceh.
"Don't let such a sensitive issue damage [peace] and create new problems, especially regarding the ethnic and religious harmony that has been achieved in Aceh," said Banda Aceh Deputy Mayor Illiza Saaduddin.
To curb Christian evangelism and the operation of illegal churches, the municipality will inform the public of the regulations on interreligious harmony in Aceh, especially in Banda Aceh. The awareness campaign will involve stakeholders, such as Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu leaders in Banda Aceh.
Illiza said her office had recently closed a number of storefront churches in the Peunayong area, which is dominated by the ethnic Chinese community. The closures were carried out because a group of residents had earlier attacked a church that did not have a permit designating it as a place of worship.
"We understand that many non-Muslims have come to Aceh after the tsunami and the peace pact, but as the local administration, we must be firm on the matter by immediately resolving it by closing the illegal churches," said Illiza.
She suggested that non-Muslims, especially Christians, worship in the churches already available in the city. Banda Aceh is home to four long-standing churches, namely the Hati Kudus Catholic church, Western Indonesian Protestant church (GPIB), Methodist church and the Batak Protestant church (HKBP), while there are also 93 mosques, 112 musholla (small mosques), a Buddhist temple and a Hindu temple in the city.
Banda Aceh's population of 216,941 includes 2,535 Buddhists (11.34 percent), 1,571 Protestants (0.07 percent), 431 Catholics (0.19 percent), 50 Hindus (or 0.02 percent), and three Confucians (0.001 percent).
To maintain religious harmony in Banda Aceh, Illiza expected all religious leaders to enlighten their communities through passages from their respective holy books, in addition to participating in regular dialogues facilitated by the Religious Harmony Community Forum (FKUB).
The deputy mayor urged all residents to respect diverse religious faiths, enhance the value of nationalism and to help each other without offending each others' creeds.
Albert Manurung, a member of the Hati Kudus Catholic church in Banda Aceh, addressed claims about the presence of Christian missionaries in the area. According to him, the current evangelistic activities in Banda Aceh had been carried out by outsiders and had made his congregation nervous of the consequences.
Manurung said many residents in Banda Aceh did not understand the difference of what they thought as "illegal" worship and Christian worship conducted outside their respective houses of worship.
Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that has implemented sharia law, though the secular Criminal Code also continues to be enforced.
Aceh's Special Bylaw No. 25/2007, which regulates the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship, was issued during Irwandi Yusuf's leadership as governor.
This regulation stands apart from those in other provinces due to the stipulations under Article 3 Paragraph 2 that require prospective houses of worship, in the pursuit of their permit, to collect the names and identity cards of 150 people, 120 endorsements from members of the local community, a recommendation letter from the village head, and written recommendations from the district administrative office, religious affairs office, regency religious office and the FKUB.