Authorities in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province have begun tearing down several Christian churches after hardline Muslims demanded their closure citing a lack of building permits and religious violence.
Tensions are high among the ethnically and religiously diverse population of the town of Aceh Singkil, where last week a mob burned down a church leaving one person dead and forcing thousands of Christians to flee.
Armed police and military troops have been deployed to the area, and evacuees have returned where Muslim residents, including members of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, had demanded that 10 churches be closed.
A meeting of local political and religious figures, including Christians, agreed on Sunday to close the houses of worship, officials present at the meeting said.
“On a day-to-day basis, the communities live in peace with each other and there is no pressure to close down these churches,” said Genti Brutu, the chief of Siompin village in Aceh Singkil, where at least three churches were torn down.
“But what we are told is that it is a matter of permits, so we have to abide by the rules.”
Aceh Singkil police 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 Paima Brutu, a caretaker of one Protestant church that was closed.
“We have applied for the building permit again and again so at this point all we’re asking the government is to be allowed to have that permit,” he said, adding the church had about 100 members.
Dozens of armoured security vehicles patrolled the streets of a cluster of villages where they are slated to be demolished in the coming days.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and the vast majority of its citizens practice a moderate form of Islam.
Aceh is its only province to implement Islamic sharia law after being granted autonomy as part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of separatist violence.