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June 24, 2017

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Indonesia shuts Christian, Buddhist places of worship

JAKARTA -- Authorities in Indonesia's only province that uses Islamic sharia laws said Tuesday they had closed some Christian places of worship and Buddhist temples following pressure from hardliners.

The closures in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, came after complaints from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and are the latest sign of growing religious intolerance in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal, deputy mayor of provincial capital Banda Aceh where the closures took place, said the official reason was that the nine Christian sites and six Buddhist temples did not have permits.

But she told AFP that they were shut last week after complaints from the FPI and that "there had been some tension before we took a decision."

"We do not want any security trouble in Banda Aceh because of these illegal activities."

The FPI presents itself as an enforcer of morals and Islamic laws and sometimes accompanies police in some parts of the country on violent raids on bars and brothels.

Nico Tarigan, who led Christian services at a two-storey house until its closure last week, said the FPI had attacked the building in June and sent text message threats.

"What we've done was simply a religious activity. It's only once a week and lasts not more than two hours," he told AFP.

"They threatened through phone messages that if we continued to hold a Sunday service, they would ruin our places of worship," he said.

Theophilus Bela, chairman of NGO Christian Communication Forum, said that he had urged the central government in Jakarta to intervene.

But the interior ministry signalled it would not step in, with a spokesman saying that "there's no closure at all as those houses of worship have no permit yet."

Indonesia's constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion. But rights groups have said the country has become less tolerant over the past decade and the government is turning a blind eye to the problem.

Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's 240 million people are Muslims, but the vast majority practise a moderate form of Islam.

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