JAKARTA • Indonesia deployed security personnel yesterday to calm unrest in its northern Aceh province, after a mob burned down churches and killed one person in religious violence this week.
Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, the majority of whom practise a moderate form of Islam. Aceh is the most conservative province in the country and the only one to abide by Islamic syariah law.
"The situation in Aceh Singkil is calm now and under control," national police spokesman Agus Rianto told Reuters by telephone, referring to the district where the attack took place.
"We are carrying out patrols in the area with the help of military troops," Mr Rianto added, declining to comment on the total number of personnel that had been deployed.
Mr Rianto denied reports that thousands of people had evacuated Aceh Singkil in the wake of the attack on Tuesday. But a Jakarta Post report yesterday citing North Sumatra Police spokesman Helfi Assegaf said that 3,433 Aceh Singkil people had fled to North Sumatra as a result of the mob violence.
THREAT TO PLURALITY
Violence motivated by anything, especially religion and belief, damages diversity.
PRESIDENT JOKO WIDODO, calling for a stop to the violence via the microblogging website Twitter
Tuesday's attack saw dozens of people with sticks and sharp weapons burning a Protestant church in a house in the district of Aceh Singkil, claiming that it did not have proper permits.
The mob then moved to a second church, where a group of people standing guard, including the police and military personnel, confronted them, the reports said. One member of the mob - later identified as Syamsul - was shot in the head by an unknown assailant, while four others were wounded by gunfire, including an army soldier, the Jakarta Globe reported.
Police said 20 people had been arrested from a mob of around 500 that had burned down churches and threatened Christians, local media reported.
President Joko Widodo called for a stop to the violence on Wednesday. "Violence motivated by anything, especially religion and belief, damages diversity," Mr Joko said on microblogging website Twitter.
Aceh was granted special regional autonomy as part of a 2005 peace agreement ending a three-decade-old separatist insurgency, which allowed it to implement syariah law, putting it at odds with the rest of the country.
Indonesia is regarded internationally as an example of mainstream Islam and religious pluralism.
But, in recent years, it has been the scene of attacks on religious minorities by hardline Islamic groups. Also, in July, a mosque was razed in Papua, a Christian-majority province in eastern Indonesia, on the Islamic holy day of Aidilfitri.
There have also been cases of the forced closing or destruction of dozens of houses of worship, including in Aceh, under the pretext of their not having proper permits.
According to the national police chief, General Badrodin Haiti, the Aceh Singkil district had attempted to shut down 20 churches said to have been built without a permit, but the incident had blown up after Muslims in the area took matters into their own hands, the Jakarta Globe reported.
National law requires that houses of worship receive approval from the local government and residents before they can open.
Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla called on Wednesday for a law or government regulation mandating tolerance in legal matters related to houses of worship.
"Otherwise, eventually people make their own rules," he told reporters, referring to the mob violence, after attending a ceremony celebrating the Islamic new year in capital Jakarta at the Istiqlal Mosque.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES, THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK