10/15/2015, 00.00
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Aceh: thousands of people flee religious violence following church attacks

by Mathias Hariyadi
Some 7,000 people have fled Aceh Singkil Regency. Two days ago a group of Muslims set fire to two churches. At least 2,000 refugees have reached the diocese of Sibolga, to the south. Singkil had not experienced sectarian violence before. In 1979, local Muslims and Christians had worked out a deal.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Thousands of people have fled their homes, streaming out of Aceh Singkil Regency, Aceh Province, following sectarian violence two days ago.

Hundreds of Muslims from the Islamic Youth Movement set fire to two Christian churches and launched guerrilla-like attacks against Christians. Two attackers are said to have died with more  wounded.

As a result of the violence, hundreds of families picked up and left, some 7,000 people who fled the conflict zone.

Islamic law (Sharia) is applied in Aceh. Aceh Singkil Regency is the province’s southernmost district, on the border with North Sumatra, where refugees have sought to escape.

In a letter to the Love Humanity Devotional Group (Kelompok Bakti Kasih Kemanusiaan or KBKK), a Jakarta-based Catholic humanitarian association, Crosier priest Ipung Purwosuranto said that hundreds of people are seeking refuge in North Sumatra.

"Dozens have arrived asking for asylum in St Michael’s Parish in Tumajae, in the diocese of Sibolga. They are housed temporarily in the rectory and the house of the sisters," the clergyman said.

According to Fr Dominikus Sibagariang OFM, some 2,000 people have become refugees. "Several Capuchin priests and local nuns helped them by bringing them food. This is a humanitarian mission. The priests’ presence gives people a sense of hope and security."

The incidents in Singkil stem from Muslim anger over the construction of too many "illegal" churches, i.e. places of worship built without a proper building permit. Before this, the area had not known sectarian incidents.

According to Regency chief Safriadi, Muslim and Christian communities struck a peace deal in 1979, which was renewed in 2001, whereby both sides agreed to coexist peacefully.

The agreement included the right for Christians to build churches, but only one in four could be permanent; the others could only be provisional (undung-undung).

"Today the number of movables is greater than agreed,” Safriadi said. “Christians have at least 24, and this sparked the protest of Muslim leaders."

On 6 October, Muslims protested peacefully for the dismantling of illegal temporary churches. The local Regency chief agreed to their demands. Four days later, it was agreed that ten Christian places of worship would be torn down.

Demolition was set 19 October and would take two weeks. However, tired of waiting, local Muslims took the law into their own hands and set fire to two churches.

Since the government and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) signed a peace agreement, the province of Aceh enforces Islamic law.

However, more radical and extreme versions of Islam are growing in many parts of the country, like Bekasi and Bogor in West Java.

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