Tightened Sharia in Aceh Worrisome for Indonesia’s Christians

Special Report by ICC

01/31/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Less than a year after a hardline Islamic activist became the governor of Indonesia’s Aceh Province, emboldened local leaders are strengthening the implementation of Sharia law in the region, a move that deeply concerns Christians.

Sharia law is the legislation of Islamic moral, religious and personal conduct. But it is widely criticized for being politically motivated, abusive and prejudiced against the poor and minorities.

Already, a special moral police, Wilayatul Hisbah, rigorously enforces Sharia law wherein gambling, drinking alcohol and defying the Muslim dress code are punishable crimes. The new ruling is part of a series of new bills that will ban women from wearing tight jeans and legalize the stoning of adulterers and the flogging of homosexuals.

A rising discontentment with the government of Aceh, coupled with a consistently poor voter turnout, has forced all political parties to depend on the Islamic conservative vote. This has led to a universal commitment to uphold Sharia law across all political platforms, even trading votes for promises to place restrictions on minority faiths in the region.

Under Sharia, a “seclusion” law prohibits men and women who are neither related nor married, from being together in an isolated place. Another law imposes strict Islamic dress codes. Last February, a music concert was raided by the religious police, rounding up anyone with mohawks, tattoos, tight jeans or chains. Sixty four youths were detained and released only after 10 days of “moral rehabilitation,” which included compulsory haircuts, a change of clothes and prayer. In 2010, a Human Rights Watch report detailed evidence that these laws are selectively enforced and rarely, if ever, applied to the wealthy and the well-connected.

Aceh has the highest proportion of Muslims in Indonesia and it is the only province in the country where Islamic law is enforced. In 2012, Aceh’s new governor, Zaini Abdullah, a former separatist activist of the Free Aceh Movement, won a landslide victory and made clear statements to indicate that Sharia law will be enforced more forcefully than ever before. This is particularly worrying for Christians, who already face hostility in a region where even moderate Muslims are fearful of the religious police.

Ryan Morgan, ICC’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, said, “The increased implementation of Sharia law in Aceh does not bode well for Christians not only living in Aceh, but for Christians across Indonesia. From bomb threats against Christians in Sulawesi, to angry mobs forcing congregations out of churches in Bekasi, to nine churches being shut down in Aceh, 2012 saw a list of religious freedom violations for the world’s largest Muslim majority country. Indonesia is quickly losing its reputation of being a tolerant Islamic nation and the implementation of strict Sharia legislation in Aceh is certainly a step in the wrong direction.”

The political influence of Islamic extremists in the region was most obvious last year, when nine churches in Aceh were shut down for being “illegal.” The Mayor was asked to initiate the move by a Muslim cleric, who was briefed about the churches by an extremist group. The churches, which had been operating for years, were told that if they did not sign an agreement to stop all their activities, the government would not be responsible for their security.

Despite democratic reforms and a reputation for being tolerant, Indonesia’s image is being tarnished by the influence of extremists and regular incidents of persecution against Christians. In 2012, according to the Report on Freedom of Religion and Belief by Jakarta-based Setara Institute, there were 264 cases of religious freedom violations in Indonesia, 50 of them against Christians. The violations range from beatings, false arrests, public humiliation, forced restrictions on places of worship, social discrimination and extended imprisonments without a trial.

Last year, two Christians were publicly beaten and brutally interrogated by a crowd of villagers. The two were part of a community development group that was teaching agricultural methods to villagers in Aceh. But people reacted violently when someone in the village came to Christ through a Bible study they had started. After being imprisoned for 60 days on false charges of abusing Islam, the police were forced to release them for lack of evidence.

Last month, 200 Muslims threw rotten eggs at Christians who were on their way to a Christmas Eve service. The attack was the latest in a series of clashes between members of the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church near Jakarta and local Muslim residents, who are against the existence of the church. The church’s building was sealed by the Bekasi administration in 2009 and remains closed in defiance of a Supreme Court order in favor of the church.

If Indonesia is to further its reputation for being a tolerant Islamic nation, it must act swiftly against the persecution of religious minorities in Aceh and other parts of the country. While Aceh enjoys a certain degree of autonomy, the federal government must not allow it to defy the Pancasila, the official philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state, which calls for a just and civilized humanity and social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.

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