Aceh’s Christians Hope for a Christmas Miracle
Religious tolerance for all in Aceh is still a pipe dream for most minority groups living there, despite the peaceful everyday social interactions between people of all religions there.
Underneath the calm surface, there is religious strife in the province. A priest and human rights activist said that the move by law enforcers to shut down their places of worship was a form of human rights violation.
“Acehese people has been known as a tolerant people towards non-Muslim group, and also in terms of worship. So, the development in the recent years is very strange,” said Zulkifar Muhammad, an executive director of human rights non-governmental organization coalition in Aceh. “The new laws don’t seem to be in line with the tolerance displayd by the people of Aceh.
“There was no conflict between religious communities in Aceh. It’s because from the past, Acehese people are known as people who accept diversity,” he added.
According to Zulkifar, worshiping or gathering to worship based on someone’s belief is a basic right that is bestowed on a person since birth and cannot be infringed or taken away. A ruling which limits someone’s basic right is a form of human rights violation.
“Nowadays, the state makes a mistake by limiting people’s basic right to worship comfortably in whatever their religion is,” Zulkifar said.
Last October, the Aceh provincial government closed nine churches and six Buddhist temples, saying the congregation did not secure permits. As a result, some no longer have a place of worship.
“The one who insisted on upholding that regulation was Deputy Mayor Ibu Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, while Mayor Mawardy Nurdin did nothing related to Shariah law,” Zulkifar said. “Illiza’s action showed that she did not respect the freedom of religion. The place that was shut down merely a three-level store that was used as a place of worship once a week. But the government demanded a permit because it was not a formal place of worship.”
Zulkifar continued: “I assume this is an attempt to benefit politically for the 2014 general election. It’s like politicizing Shariah because Illiza is from Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP). Shariah has been used as a ploy to grab the votes of the conservative Muslims in Aceh,” he said.
Nico Tarigan, a priest of Indonesian Bethel Church (GBI), which was shut down by the Aceh government, said that his congregation has not been able to return to the church after it church was sealed by the local government on Oct. 25.
“Since that day, we could only worship in our own houses because we follow the regulation, but we can’t accept it,” he said.
It is now just a few days before Christmas but about 90 GBI members are not making any preparations.
“Because we are not allowed to gather for worship,” Nico said.
Nico, who has lived in Banda Aceh for eight years, said that Acehese people is pretty tolerant in terms of social interaction with non-Muslim groups. But, the local government is the one who is displaying discrimination by making non-Muslim groups obtain permits to designate official places of worship. not letting non-Muslim groups worship or hold Sunday services does not give a chance for them to worship or hold a Sunday service, saying they had not obtained permission to hold mass in the store.
“Before the shutdown, we also got many threats through SMS from irresponsible people. To avoid a further anarchy action, we accept the decision of shutting down [the church] with a heavy heart,” he said, saying he hoped there is a solution soon given by Banda Aceh government.
Domidoyo Ratupenu, a priest from Indonesian Presbyterian Church in Western Indonesia (GPIB) Banda Aceh, said that he and 200 congregations are still preparing for a simple Christmas celebration by prioritizing unity, togetherness, and peace.
He admitted the tolerance of Aceh people is still exist despite the shutdown of churches.
“If we see from human rights perspective, of course it’s [the shutdown of churches] a violation because we need a place of worship. That move has hurt human rights principal because the government always said we don’t have the permit,” he said.
“The government often hides from the regulation itself. If we want to be fair, that regulation is not fair at all because it has crossed the basic right of human to worship based on each belief. So, it seems that government is being ignorant about the fairness for its own citizens,” he explained.
Domidoyo also refused the option offered by Banda Aceh government that ordered Christians to only worship in the certified churches in Banda Aceh.
“Some Christians have different way to worship. Some are clapping their hands to express their worship, but some don’t. How come the government forces them to be the same. It must be uncomfortable for them too,” said Domidoyo, who has only moved to Banda Aceh a year ago.
“The government should learn the problem and provide protection to all citizens by allowing them to worship comfortably,” he added.