Dozens of Acehnese Christians, men, women and children have gathered for a service on the eve of Eas

Dozens of Acehnese Christians, men, women and children have gathered for a service on the eve of Easter Friday in tarpaulin tents. (Photo: Rio Tuasikal)

Over recent months nine churches have been torn down by authorities in the Indonesian province of Aceh, while two more were torched by hardliners.  

For almost six months now, the minority Christian community in Aceh has been forced to hold their church services in tarpaulin tents. 

As Rio Tuasikal reports, it was a somber Easter for Acehnese Christians this year.

It’s a rainy afternoon here in Singkil, a remote area of Aceh province.

Dozens of Acehnese Christians, men, women and children have gathered for a service on the eve of Easter Friday.

Among the worshipppers at the makeshift tent church is Rosmayanti Manik.

In one hand she is holding a bible, in the other, an umbrella.

“I am really really sad about this condition,” says Manik, “Last week when we went to this tent, it was raining and we were all wet and unable to sit.”

The temporary tent has been pitched inside a palm oil plantation. 

The government has forbidden their place of worship from being visisble from the street. And as many Christians are farmers, they have set up the tent church in the plantation where they live. 

Sheets of blue tarpaulin have been fastened to poles above the earthen floor.

But it’s rainy season now so often it’s a soggy service.

Church elder, Efrika Munte, is praying for a new house of worship. 

“The hope is still there. We deeply wish for a proper building, a comfortable place for us to pray,” says Munte.

Their church, the Mandumpang church which was attended by 300 people, was burned down last August. 

Police say the fire was caused by an electric shortage, but others believe that religious extremists were behind the attack.

Local residents say they saw jerry cans around the church area the day it was set alight.

And since then, the Christian community has been forced to worship in tents.

Like most provinces in Indonesia, Aceh is a majority Muslim province, but it is more coservative than most.

The province is ruled by sharia law and relations between the Christian and Muslim community haven’t always been harmonious. 

In 1979 the local government issued a law limiting the number of churches in Singkil to 4, and small churches called undung-undung to 16.

But there is no restriction on the number of mosques... 

Tension and resentmnet has been building up between the two communities – culminating in the destruction and burning of the churches last October. 

Yet Ramli Manik, one local Muslim leader, said Christians and Muslims have been living in harmony for decades.

He was visiting his Christian neighboor the day before Easter Friday.

“We are Muslim. All we know is that Islam never tought us to be violent. Islam is blessing for entire universe,” he says, “It’s shameful if we become destroyers or provocateurs.”

But not everyone shares the same view as Ramli Malik. And it is still an uphill battle for the Christian community in Singkil.

Without a permit from the government, which they have been waiting on for years, the community is unable to build new houses of worship.

It’s created a somber mood this Easter, explains church elder Norim Berutu.

“We should of held services this whole week. But we are not able to do that because of the situation, no lights, and we have to go through the bush to get into our tent.”

Visiting the remains of her old church over Easter, Listiwati Silalahi looked at the debris and started to cry.

“We cannot handle it anymore,” she says, “Sometimes when we have a service under the tent now, we see this wreckage.”  

Wati remembers Easter last year, when the children had an Easter egg hunt and the community prayed in their church together.

But this year, it’s all silent in Singkil.

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