Hell in the House of God

Author: Aisyah Llewellyn

Boas Tumangger has a series of videos, shot on his phone, that show the systematic destruction of churches in Singkil in Aceh Province, Indonesia, in 2015. 

One piece of footage shows the moment his church was ripped down by local authorities using wooden poles to dismantle the roof. The other was shot the day another church in Singkil was set ablaze by a mob wielding machetes and Molotov cocktails. 

He’s never uploaded them to social media, he says. Instead, they sit on his phone, tormenting him. He watches them sometimes, at night, when he’s on his own. “They’re too personal to upload,” he says. “Too sad.”

Boas holds up the phone to show New Naratif the video of his own church being destroyed, but can’t bring himself to follow along. The screen is at arm’s length, facing away, so he doesn’t have to see the moving images of the army and police tearing at the house of worship. But he leaves the sound on, which is punctuated with the screams of local residents as the destruction begins. Once the roof of his local church crashes to the ground, Boas, whose eyes are watering, turns off the recording. 

“After the roof fell, my son turned to me and asked, ‘Where are we going to pray now, Papa?’” he says. 

Then he bursts into tears. 

The videos, and his reaction to them, are almost unbearable to watch.

Cursed land

Singkil is a strange place. It teeters on the border between Aceh Province and North Sumatra Province, and has long had a chequered history. Singkil is home to the Pakpak Batak, an indigenous group in North Sumatra and a subgroup of the wider Batak tribe. Like many Batak groups, the Pakpak are mostly Christian. 

Singkil is also something of a geographical accident. It used to be part of North Sumatra, before the border was moved in 1957 and it was absorbed into the wider Aceh Province. As a predominantly Christian area, it stands out in Aceh, the only part of Indonesia to have syariah law. Aceh used to be one of the most powerful Islamic sultanates in the region, and for years used both local and Islamic law before officially adopting syariah law in 2005 as part of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding that ended years of civil war in the province. Aceh is also sometimes dubbed “The Veranda of Mecca”. 

While it’s now technically part of a province where 98% of residents are Muslim, the reality is that Singkil has always had a large Christian population, and therefore Christian churches. As far back as 1942, before Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch in 1945, there were documented churches in Singkil. Boas, his father, and his grandfather all used to worship in a church built in 1965. 

But over the years, due to its shifting borders, Singkil has been “Aceh-fied”. 

The razing of HKI Suka Makmur

“We are not the minority here, nor are we immigrants,” Boas tells New Naratif. He calls himself “a son of Singkil”. 

He’s larger-than-life, effusive, theatrical and speaks like a machine gun, often peppering the ends of his sentences with rhetorical questions. His children were born here too, he says—the fourth generation of his family to breathe their first breath on Singkil’s land. 

But Boas had never witnessed anything in his hometown like the events of 13 October 2015—a day he describes as “simply terrifying.” 

“The police were silent. There was no rule of law that day.”

It wasn’t, however, a day that came without warning. Just that morning, Boas had received a message through a local WhatsApp group with a chilling piece of news: 13 churches were going to be torn down in Singkil for not having the right building permits. Boas immediately went to the site of one of the churches mentioned in the message. When he got to HKI Suka Makmur, he says, a crowd of around 600 local residents had already formed. 

“It looked like a war zone,” he says. 

There were hundreds of police officers and soldiers carrying guns with live ammunition; they were meant to be the ones tasked with dismantling the church. But in addition to the local authorities, youths armed with homemade petrol bombs and knives had also come to take matters into their own hands. They claimed to be so offended by the “illegal” churches in Singkil that they were going to burn them all down. 

“The police said nothing,” says Boas. “They just told the attackers to be ‘patient’”. 

He laughs dryly at the absurdity of this. 

There were hundreds of police officers and soldiers carrying guns with live ammunition; they were meant to be the ones tasked with dismantling the church.

What happened next is not exactly clear, except that the church was set alight rather than being demolished by the local authorities in accordance with the correct legal procedure. “The police were silent,” says Boas. “There was no rule of law that day.”

Four people were injured in the melee, one person died, and some 1,900 Christian residents fled Singkil in fear. Many had nowhere to go and ended up becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs) in other parts of North Sumatra. Initially, the local authorities promised to pay compensation for the razed church, which had been set on fire, but to date this has yet to materialise. 

The metal podium is the only part of the church that escaped the blaze at HKI Suka Makmur. Aisyah Llewellyn

Boas takes New Naratif to the location of what remains of HKI Suka Makmur. The walls of the church are gone, and the floor is scorched black. There are fragments of floor tiles scattered everywhere, and one still shows a perfect, tiny crucifix. The only thing that still stands inside the church is the priest’s podium; it was made of metal and therefore survived the blaze. 

Strangely, while almost all of the church was destroyed by the fire, the front entrance still stands, with the words “Huria Kristen Indonesia” or “Indonesian Christian Church” emblazoned on it, just below a large crucifix. When asked how it escaped the flames and the demolition, everyone at the site, including Boas and local villagers who have gathered nearby, is at a loss. 

“Maybe God,” one bystander finally offers, to murmurs of appreciation from the crowd. It feels like this is a small victory of some kind, and a much needed one.

After all, the razing of HKI Suka Makmur was far from the first time this kind of thing had happened in Singkil.

In fact, the historic burning of churches in Aceh reads like a laundry list of terror stretching back decades, with cases in March 1995, July 1998, September 2001, September 2006, August 2015 and October 2015. 

While Indonesia officially recognises six religions—Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Confucism—tensions between different communities regularly flare in the country, where over 80% of the population is Muslim. 

These tensions have been fueled, in part, by actions taken by prominent Muslim organisations that have further fostered a climate of intolerance and hostility towards minority groups in Indonesia. As Usman Hamid of Amnesty Indonesia explains, “The MUI’s fatwa have triggered discriminatory policies and attitudes towards minorities.” This is a reference to the country’s largest Muslim organisation, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), headed by Indonesia’s Vice-President elect, Ma’ruf Amin.

In recent years, the MUI has drafted fatwa, or non-legally binding pronouncements on Islamic law, against the Ahmadiyya community, so-called “religious sects” like Gafatar, the LGBT community, and other minority groups. 

“Ma’ruf Amin was one of the driving forces behind those intolerant fatwas,” continues Hamid, “And now he’s at the centre of power.” 

Destruction in Desa Sikoran

It’s not just Boas who has experienced what it’s like to watch his church being ripped apart. 

Parasian Barasa has been the village head of Desa Sikoran since 2011. He’s the opposite of Boas: slight and softly spoken, almost timid at times. He tells New Naratif about the day his church was torn down in Desa Sikoran in 2015, just 200m from his house. “I wasn’t strong enough to watch it happen,” he says. “No one wants to see their house torn down, let alone a house of worship. And it belonged to all of us [in the village].” 

The authorities, frustrated that it was taking so long, started tearing at the structure with their bare hands. 

Two weeks prior to the demolition, Barasa received word from the municipal police that the church didn’t have a formal permit and they were going to demolish it. In Barasa’s telling, 10 members of the police and army showed up with crowbars and hammers. 

“I will never understand,” he says. “It didn’t even have a cross on the top. It just looked like a normal house.” 

It took four hours to rip apart the wooden church that had stood for five years. In the end, the authorities, frustrated that it was taking so long, started tearing at the structure with their bare hands. 

“I think people have a headache seeing ‘infidels’ or seeing crucifixes. They hate it if people convert to Christianity here,” he says, when asked why churches have been dismantled all over Singkil as far back as 1995. 

This is all that’s left of GKBP Sanggaberu after it was dismantled on 24 October 2015. Aisyah Llewellyn

Word on the streets is one of creeping paranoia, and unsavoury myths and legends about the Pakpak Batak and Singkil have swirled for years. 

Some say that it’s a hotbed of incest—likely a distortion of the fact that the Pakpak, like many others in Indonesia, often marry within their own ethnic sub-group. Others say that the Pakpak community is trying to convert everyone to their faith and turn good Muslims into sinners who worship false idols.

According to Boas, churches have been springing up in Singkil “like mushrooms” for years. The local Christian community has grown and expanded—although Boas says this happened organically. Active proselytising is non-existant, for fear that it would further anger Singkil’s Muslim community.  

Religious “Harmony” Forums

As is so often the case with Indonesian jurisprudence, different parts of the law conflict on the issue of building houses of worship, making it difficult for anyone to give a definitive answer, and making it easy for people to circumvent the regulations. 

Speaking to New Naratif, Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia, says that, “the decision to demolish the churches [in Aceh] was a clear violation of the right of every person to practice his or her religion.” 

This right is protected by Indonesia’s Constitution, drafted in 1945. It’s considered the fundamental rule of law in Indonesia, and the one cited by most legal experts when asked about the legalities of houses of worship in Indonesia.

According to human rights lawyer and New Naratif’s legal advisor for Indonesia, Ranto Sibarani, “The legal planning permission of a house of worship is not a reason to close, seal off or stop religious activities. Practising and performing religious acts of worship is protected by the 1945 Constitution and there is no requirement that says that a place of worship must have a building permit and or legal status.”

But where it gets confused is when the Constitution clashes with a regulation drafted in 2006 which created what are known as “Religious Harmony Forums” or FKUB.

FKUB came into force in 2005–2006, during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. They may have sounded like a good idea at first, at least on paper. The rationale was that a group was needed to handle planning permissions for houses of worship across Indonesia, but the way FKUB were created was flawed from the start and has been heavily criticised. Speaking to New Naratif, Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch Indonesia describes FKUB as “a toxic principle, basically making the majority have veto power over the minority.” 

FKUB tendencies to push minorities to respect the majority ignores the importance of the constitutional guarantee of equal citizenship, human dignity and the rule of law.

And there’s one man responsible for this: again, it’s Ma’ruf Amin, Indonesia’s vice-president elect who was elected alongside current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2019, and who previously worked with the Yudhoyono administration to create FKUB. 

As Harsono tells New Naratif, “In 2005–2006, Ma’ruf Amin almost single-handedly changed the principle of freedom of religion and faith—like the Indonesian Constitution mandates—to the principle of religious harmony which discriminates against religious minorities.”

Amnesty’s Hamid agrees, and says that, “FKUB tend to push minorities to respect the majority. This logic tends to ignore the importance of the constitutional guarantee of equal citizenship, human dignity and the rule of law—the three fundamental principles of Indonesia’s Constitution.”

In order to build a house of worship in Indonesia, a wide range of stipulations must be followed. 

Firstly, the religious group in question has to get 90 signatures from members of the congregation to prove that there’s a need for the house of worship. Then, they also need 60 signatures from locals in the area in which the house of worship will be erected—from residents of a different faith. 

But getting those 60 signatures can be almost impossible for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in Boas’ case, he tried to get 60 signatures from Muslim residents around his home village of Sanggaberu, but points out that 99% of people in the immediate area are Christians. “Who are we supposed to ask to sign?” he says. “The oil palms?” 

Even if 60 residents of a different faith can be sourced, they also have to be convinced to support the house of worship, which may or may not be easy depending on religious tensions and tolerance within the local community. 

In Boas’ telling, various ulama or religious teachers in Singkil have issued statements over the years to Muslim residents, stating that it’s haram (prohibited in Islam) for them to sign in support of a Christian house of worship. While he does acknowledge that some ulama and local Muslim residents have supported petitions for signatures in the past, he says they are far from the majority. 

Amnesty’s Hamid also points out that it’s not just signatures that are the problem. “We haven’t found progress in terms of religious freedom in Aceh, especially for the Christian minority there,” he says. “We have found regulations on establishing places of worship to be discriminatory against religious minorities, with requirements that are virtually impossible to follow.”

This is echoed by Boas. When he tried to register to rebuild his church legally in Sanggaberu, he was told that, in addition to the signatures, he would also need approval from the head of the district; a recommendation letter from the municipal religious affairs office; another recommendation letter from FKUB; a letter from the Ministry of Public Housing; and another recommendation letter from the municipal district. 

“We could try until Judgement Day, and we still wouldn’t be able to fulfill the requirements,” he says. 

Annihilation at GKBP Sanggarberu 

After HKI Suka Makmur was razed on 13 October, Boas was informed that his church in Sanggaberu would be next—it had also suddenly been deemed an illegal structure. Knowing that there was nothing they could do to stop the destruction, the village asked for one accommodation: to be allowed to worship in GKBP Sanggaberu for the last time. 

On 24 October 2015, as the service started, Boas, ever the documentarian, took out his phone and started recording. 

The resulting video is excruciating in its cruelty. The congregation, mostly made up of elderly residents, are singing a hymn called But You Respect Me, Lord. Many of them are in tears. Some sing and rock back and forth as they cry, as others try to comfort them. Boas says that outside, there were over 100 police and army, watching and waiting for the service to finish.

When they stepped in to destroy the church, Boas kept silent. “I couldn’t do anything to stop them,” he says. 

This is the same church outside which Boas’ son asked him where they were going to pray in the future. The father didn’t have an answer at the time, but in the end the local community did what many before them had been forced to do: retreated into the jungle. 

Boas and Barasa take New Naratif to the site. Four years on from that fateful day, there is little left other than a few concrete pillars that lie scattered around like discarded bones. There is a smashed altar, now overgrown with weeds, and next to it a track through the jungle that leads up a hill to a small clearing. In it stands a large tent covered in a blue tarpaulin and filled with wooden pews. 

This is the village’s new “church”. 

Four years on from that fateful day, there is little left other than a few concrete pillars that lie scattered around like discarded bones.

As New Naratif is given a tour of the tent, school children from Sanggaberu start following along, doing wheelies on their bikes and showing off the spot where they go to Sunday School. After a while, it becomes clear that the majority of them are covered in rashes, particularly around their arms and necks. When asked about this, Boas explains that the tent is next to a large, stagnant pond filled with mosquitoes, midges and other biting insects. When the children attend Sunday School, they often leave covered in bites which then get infected. 

But they don’t want to risk moving out of the jungle to a more exposed place, for fears of another arson attack like the one on HKI Suka Makmur. 

When contacted by New Naratif and asked what the local police are doing to protect the Christian community in Singkil from further attacks, Chief-of-Police Andrianto Argamuda seemingly flicked the issue aside. “The Christian community in Singkil don’t need protecting because Singkil is already safe… I can promise that,” he said.

A quest for justice

Boas is now the head of a group called Forum Cinta Damai Aceh Singkil. It was formed in December 2015, after the events of 13 and 24 October 2015, to try and repair tensions between the various religious communities and come to an agreement about houses of worship in Singkil. 

In total, Boas has been to Jakarta 11 times to try and lobby for some of the razed churches to be rebuilt, using his own money to pay for travel expenses. He’s met with Yasona Laoly, Indonesia’s Minister for Law and Human Rights; Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, Indonesia’s Minister for Religious Affairs; the Chief of Police; the Head of the Military Police; and the National Commission on Human Rights. He’s also met with other high level ministers he doesn’t want to name, who met with him in their own time and off-the-record to voice their support for the Christian residents of Singkil. 

While everyone he’s spoken to has been sympathetic, no one appears to have been able to get any concrete results, both literally and figuratively.  

Others also seem to be trying, but with limited success to date. Chief-of-Police Andrianto Argamuda told New Naratif that the Singkil police force are working with the local government to “try and mediate between the Muslim and Christian communities to reach an agreement on the number of churches that can be built in Singkil so that the Christian community can find a place to worship easily.” 

“We need our government to show up and finish this.”

But Boas now says that the only way to solve the stalemate in Singkil is for the central government to step in and make a decision. “If children fight, their parents sort it out,” he says. “We need our government to show up and finish this.”

Amnesty’s Hamid agrees, but points out that “without strong and good will from the government and leaders in protecting the minorities dealing with the establishment of houses of worship, nothing is likely to change significantly.” He also adds that just getting support from Jakarta is not enough and that minorities “often have to face mob pressure at a local level and unwilling local government to protect their own people [who they have] deemed minorities or ‘deviant’.”

Both Hamid and Human Rights Watch quote a case that supports this, of the Taman Yasmin Indonesia Christian Church in Bogor, West Java. It had been granted planning permission, only to be forced to close. The church then appealed to Indonesia’s Supreme Court and won, but the local authorities refused to follow the law and the church has never been opened.

In the interests of fairness, it’s also important to note that the FKUB serves to disenfranchise all minority groups—and anyone can find themselves a “minority” depending on where they happen to be based.

For example, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2018, a Christian group in Jayapura in Papua said that a mosque’s minaret needed to be dismantled, as it was higher than any of the church steeples in the Christian majority area, and therefore offensive. Due to the rules set up by the Religious Harmony Forums, they were completely within their rights to do this and the minaret was lowered. 

Whichever way you look at it, and whoever’s side you may be on, Indonesia’s FKUB openly facilitate abuses of power and legitimise mob rule. 

Ongoing conflict

After showing New Naratif around the burned remains of HKI Suka Makmur, Boas and Barasa sit on the charred altar and watch as the sun starts to set over the surrounding palm oil plantations. It’s quiet and peaceful, and Boas is unusually contemplative and solemn. 

As they sit there, both Boas and Barasa agree that Singkil’s problems aren’t just about bricks and mortar. “We need trauma healing and counselling for our children,” they both tell New Naratif. “So many generations have seen this and they are traumatised. Imagine in the future how our children will feel? Imagine them saying, ‘I can’t be friends with a Muslim because they ripped down our church’.”

The local community has had to move to a new church in the middle of the jungle, which is basically just a tent. Aisyah Llewellyn

New Naratif’s legal advisor, Ranto Sibarani, sits next to Boas on the altar. He grew up as a Christian in a Muslim majority area in Jambi Province in Sumatra, and says that his local church was often burned down as well. “We just used to rebuild it again, every time, but imagine the impact it has on you as a child,” he says. “Imagine seeing your church burned down… year after year after year.”

Asked if there is anything else he wants to say about Aceh’s burning churches, Boas makes an impromptu three-minute unscripted video. 

In it, he pleads several times with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to get involved and help heal Singkil. “If I have to get down on my knees and kiss people’s feet, I’ll do it,” he says. 

He looks exhausted and sad—crushed by the weight of a never-ending dispute about who has the right to pray to their God, and where they should be allowed to do it. 

“This conflict will just keep going, and it will almost certainly get worse,” he says, looking straight at the camera. 

“This is a ticking time bomb.”


Aisyah Llewellyn

Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Editor in Chief. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at aisyah.llewellyn@newnaratif.com.

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