ACEH SINGKIL (Aceh) • The authorities in Indonesia's conservative Aceh province yesterday began tearing down several small Christian churches after hard-line Muslims demanded their closure, citing a lack of building permits, and following religious violence.
Tensions are high among the ethnically and religiously diverse population of Aceh Singkil, where last week a mob burned down a church, leaving one person dead and forcing thousands of Christians to flee the area.
Armed police and military troops have been deployed to the area and evacuees have since returned.
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.
Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and the vast majority of its citizens practise a moderate form of Islam.
Aceh is its only province to implement Islamic law, or syariah, as it was granted autonomy as part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of separatist violence.
On a day-to-day basis, the communities live in peace with each other and there is no pressure to close down these churches. But what we are told is that it is a matter of permits, so we have to abide by the rules.
MR GENTI BRUTU, village chief of Siompin in Aceh
Police in Aceh Singkil district used sledgehammers and axes to tear down the churches - little more than small, wooden structures - as Christian members of the community looked on, many of them weeping.
"Whether or not we agree, we are going ahead with it," said Mr Paima Brutu, 35, caretaker of one Protestant church that was closed.
He added that the church had about 100 members.
"We have applied for the building permit again and again, so at this point all we are asking the government is to be allowed to have that permit," he said.
The closures come after a meeting on Sunday of local political and religious figures, including Christians, in which all sides agreed to close the houses of worship, officials present at the meeting said.
"There was no issue during the demolition as there was a joint agreement with the Christian community," local official Abdul Manaf told Agence France-Presse.
"On a day-to-day basis, the communities live in peace with each other and there is no pressure to close down these churches," Aceh's Siompin village chief Genti Brutu said. "But what we are told is that it is a matter of permits, so we have to abide by the rules."
At least three churches have been torn down in Siompin village.
The authorities say that seven more churches will be torn down in the coming days.
Aceh - on the northern tip of Indonesia's western Sumatra island - has been introducing more syariah regulations in recent years.
Critics say the pressure on churches is part of a pattern of growing religious intolerance across Indonesia, where Christians and minority Muslim Shi'ite and Ahmadi communities say they feel under threat.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE