Christians in Aceh Singkil are forced to worship in tents set up in the woods one year after their church buildings were demolished by Islamic extremists, as prospects to rebuild new buildings remain bleak.
According to local sources, it is not likely that the government will issue permits for new buildings with the February 2017 election closing in. Aceh Singkil is predominantly Muslim, the only province in the country that is under Sharia law, and granting building permits to Christians could lose politicians a lot of votes, World Watch Monitor reported.
Christian activist Lamhot (not his real name) recounted how his church was destroyed last year. He said that at this point, he no longer expects the government to issue building permits; the candidates have already registered for next year’s election, and matters like church building permits take a backseat in the face of more important events.
Aside from this, the processing of a church building permit takes a long time. Besides acquiring the permit from the government, Christian churches also need to get 60 signatures from people of other faith.
With the church building gone, Lamhot said the church now worships in the woods, where they have set up tents. Yet even holding services in a tent needs a permit, and sadly, other churches’ requests were denied for security reasons.
On October 2015, Islamic extremists burned down a church in Aceh Singkil, causing an estimated 8,000 Christians to flee to neighboring Northern Sumatra.
Hardline Islamist group Islamic Defenders Front in Aceh Singkil called for the closing down of Christian churches in the area. They also demanded that church buildings without permits be demolished.
The attack appeared to be a response to the violence that broke out between Muslims and Christians when a 15-year-old boy was killed by police three months earlier. Retaliatory attacks erupted in different parts of the country, according to another report from the World Watch Monitor.
At the height of the violence, both Muslim and Christian leaders in Aceh Singkil agreed to tear down church buildings to appease the angry mobs. As a result, 11 churches were demolished last year by police. Six of these still meet in tents, while others have joined with other churches.
Despite these things, churches in Indonesia continue to grow. One local said the church members are keeping their "spirits high” even though they meet in the middle of a palm oil plantation.
Another one said that while rainy days make it difficult to attend the service, the church members continue to meet.
“[Rain] has happened many times, but we still continue the service. Even if the tents are leaking and rainwater or mud is splashing in from the outside, no-one ever leaves the service!” the church member said.