Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Authorities in Banda Aceh, capital of the Aceh Special Territory, ordered the closure of nine Christian home churches and six Buddhist prayer houses for alleged irregularities in their building permit. According to Deputy Mayor Hajjah Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal, the buildings were illegal because they lacked the right permit. Under the law, private homes cannot be used "for religious ceremonies or functions."
"Aceh is a special territory that enforces Sharia," she said and home churches violate the law because they lack the appropriate building permit (Izin Mendirikan Bangunan in Indonesian).
The issue is more complicated in the case of Christian places of worship because the latter require the agreement of a certain number of local residents and that of the local interfaith dialogue group. Under the pressure of radical Muslim groups, permits are often denied.
Deputy Mayor Djamal also wants the authorities to monitor the activities of Buddhist and Christian communities to ensure that their services are performed in the right places. This is necessary, in her view, to "maintain interfaith harmony." At the same time, "we shall not issue any new permit for other churches or vihara (Buddhist temples)."
Local Muslim extremists welcomed the decision. Yusuf Al-Qardhawy, head of the Aceh branch of the Islamic Defence Front (FPI), called on other jurisdictions to follow Banda Aceh, enforce Islamic law and stop any non-Muslim worship activity that is not approved.
He said the situation would be monitored constantly to ensure that rules are respected. Local sources note that the municipal order shutting Buddhist and Christian places of worship follows a complaint filed by Islamists concerning an "improper" use of buildings.
The province of Aceh, the westernmost of the archipelago of Indonesia, is also the only one which is subject to Sharia. Compliance is ensured by the 'morality police,' a special force that punishes violations in dress and behaviour.
In the past, a relative calm and religious harmony between the Muslim majority and "foreigners," members of various non-Islamic faiths, prevailed under the leadership of former guerrilla leader, now Governor Irwandy Yusuf.
More recently the situation has changed however. Attacks against religious minorities have started and fundamentalists has gained more power and freedom of action.
In last April's elections, Zaini Abdullah, a former guerrilla leader who lived in exile in Sweden, won promising to fight corruption and impose Islamic law.
The strict application of Sharia was one of the conditions separatist rebels imposed on Jakarta to end their armed struggle.
As a result of a recent spike in sectarian tensions, the area saw violence and attacks against Christian communities, which led to the closure of places of worship on the order of the authorities claiming that they lacked proper building permits.