Indonesia's Aceh demolishes churches after deadly unrest

Residents walk near a burned church to attend Sunday mass at Suka Makmur Village in Aceh Singkil, in Indonesia's Aceh province, on Oct 18, 2015.
Residents walk near a burned church to attend Sunday mass at Suka Makmur Village in Aceh Singkil, in Indonesia's Aceh province, on Oct 18, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANDA ACEH (AFP) - Indonesian security forces Monday (Oct 19) tore down three Christian churches in Aceh, bowing to demands from Muslim hardliners after deadly religious violence rocked the staunchly Islamic province last week.

Local government security officers used sledgehammers to raze two small Protestant churches and a Catholic church - modest buildings of wood, concrete and tin - in the southern district of Aceh Singkil, as Christians looked on and wept.

"There was no issue during the demolition as there was a joint agreement with the Christian community," local official Abdul Manaf told AFP, citing a lack of proper building permits as the reason for the churches' demolition.

Authorities say that seven more churches will be torn down in the coming days, following meetings between the Muslim and Christian communities about the issue.

It came a week after a hundreds-strong, stick-wielding mob razed a church in the district to the ground, and then fought with Christians in clashes that left one Muslim dead and four other people injured.

Police and the military were deployed to restore order, and dozens were detained. The violence followed demands from an Islamic youth group earlier this month that the local government tear down a number of churches operating without permits.

The only province in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country allowed to implement Islamic law, Aceh has been introducing more syariah regulations in recent years, and critics say minorities are being increasingly targeted.

It is part of a pattern of growing religious intolerance across Indonesia, where Christians and minority Muslim Shia and Ahmadi communities say they feel under threat. Most Indonesians practise a moderate form of Islam.

Aceh, on the northern tip of Indonesia's western Sumatra island, begin implementing syariah law in 2001 after being granted special autonomy, an attempt by Jakarta to quell a long-running separatist insurgency.

The implementation of Islamic laws sped up after Aceh struck a peace deal with Jakarta in 2005, which handed the province more autonomy. Gay sex, gambling and drinking alcohol are now punishable by caning.