Imagining a nation divided

On 13 October 2015, a group of Muslim residents in the district of Aceh Singkil burned down a Christian church, then attempted to do the same to a second. The attackers allegedly claimed to be acting to close illegal houses of worship, that is, churches without government permits. One member of the group died after clashing with police. In the aftermath, the local government closed ten other churches thought not to have proper permits, and several thousand Christians fled across Aceh’s border with North Sumatra.

Reading news stories about these tragic events, I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. In 2008 and 2009, I conducted research in the archives of the Acehnese branch of the Indonesian Council of Ulama, located in Banda Aceh. Among these files is a collection of documents related to an earlier period of tensions between Muslims and Christians in Aceh Singkil.

Between 1968 and 1979 the question of churches without proper permits led to similar confrontations in this region. In March 1978, these tensions climaxed when four churches were burned by an Acehnese mob. At least one man, in this case a Christian, died. A second round of church burnings occurred in June 1979. After these, the national government helped to negotiate an agreement to end the violence. As in 2015, this settlement entailed the closing of churches without government permits.