Residents pray as they attend Sunday mass at a temporary shelter near a burned church at Suka Makmur Village in Aceh Singkil, Indonesia Aceh province. (Reuters)
A 153-foot statue of an open-armed Jesus famously towers high above the Indonesian city of Manado, but Christians are under siege in the world's fourth-most populous country, according to a disturbing new report.
The Southeast Asian nation, where about 90 percent of its 250 million people are Muslim, has long been seen as seen as an example that a large Muslim majority can live in relative peace alongside minority religions, like Christianity and Hinduism. But in October, there was a troubling outburst in violence in the Sharia-law governed region of Aceh. At the urging from Islamic leaders, hundreds of Muslims took to the streets with machetes and torched area churches.
"We will not stop hunting Christians and burning churches."
— Threat from imam
"We will not stop hunting Christians and burning churches. Christians are Allah's enemies," one Islamic leader said, according to a report by the Gatestone Institute titled, "The Indonesian Jihad on Christian Churches."
Foreign Policy magazine described the Oct. 13 attacks in the Aceh region of the country that sits on the northern end of Sumatra. Mobs carried axes and machetes rode on motorcycles, in pickups and in cars and attacked a church in Suka Makmur. "The group of Muslim hard-liners had apparently had enough of their Christian neighbor's open display of faith," the report said.
The report said that a total of 8,000 Christians in Aceh were displaced in violent clashes and one person, believed to be a Muslim attacker, died after being shot in the head.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo tried to ease tensions at the time and tweeted, "Stop violence in Aceh Singkil. Any act of violence, whatever the reasons behind it, not to mention if it is related to religion and faith, will kill diversity —Jkw."
Aceh is the only province in country to have introduced Sharia law. It was granted autonomy in 2005.
The head of the local chapter of the hard-line group Islamic Defenders Front told Reuters he was demanding the closure of 10 more churches because they lacked proper permits.
Karel Steenbrink, the author of "Catholics in Independent Indonesia," said the situation in Aceh is a complicated one. He said a small minority in the region see the Christianization of the country as a threat to Muslims. These groups have been known to work with local government to rule these churches' building permits illegal. In many cases, he said, mosques could have the same documents.
"Then you can get into the debate on what qualifies as a house of worship," Steenbrink said. "If I invite you to my garage to say the Rosary, is that a house of worship? There are stories of Muslims tossing stones into windows while a prayer service is occurring."
The think tank's report said the church attacks are not limited to Aceh, and represent an acceleration of a trend building over several years. Muslim mobs have demanded that local authorities block new churches from being built, and at times, have taken it upon themselves to stop Christians from establishing houses of worship. The report cites a widely reported incident on Christmas Day, 2012, in which Christians gathered on an empty lot in Bekasi — nearly 1,500 miles south of Aceh, where they hoped to build.
Even though the church had filed the necessary paperwork, the church was shut down after hundreds of Muslims, including women and children, threw rotten eggs, rocks, and plastic bags filled with urine and feces at the Christians assembled on the lot.
"We are constantly having to change our location because our existence appears to be unwanted, and we have to hide so that we are not intimidated by intolerant groups," a church spokesman told the think tank. "We had hoped for help from the police, but after many attacks on members of the congregation [including when they privately meet for worship at each other's homes], we see that the police are also involved in this.”
The changing demographics have put areas like Bekasi, which sits on the outskirts of Jakarta, into the hard-liners' cross hairs. The shift reflects a greater problem in Indonesia, which is struggling to stamp out extremist movements without losing the support of moderates, who condemn violence but are sensitive to perceptions that the government is subservient to the West.
Outsiders have steadily poured into the Jakarta suburb in search of work, bringing with them their own religions, traditions and values. That has made conservative Islamic clerics nervous. Some have used sermons to warn their flock to be on the lookout for signs of proselytization.
Moderate Muslims in the country also have reason the be concerned about an extremist trends. Last month, two suspected lesbians were detained Shariah police in Aceh province and will undergo what an official described as "rehabilitation."
The women, 18 and 19 years old, were taken in for questioning by Sharia police officers who saw them sitting and hugging each other, officials said. The two were not charged because a new criminal code for Aceh that criminalizes homosexuality was not in effect. Under that code, which is currently in place, any person found guilty of homosexuality could face up to 100 cane lashes or a maximum fine of 1,000 grams of fine gold or imprisonment of up to 100 months.
Those convicted of gambling and consuming alcohol already face caning, as do women who wear tight clothes and people who skip Friday Muslim prayers. Indonesia's national criminal code doesn't regulate homosexuality, but the country's government has grown "radically decentralized," and the hundreds of local governments play a major role in law and order.
The country's Ministry of Religious Affairs, which has always been led by a Muslim, does not make it particularly easy to build a new church. One rule is that a church must accumulate 90 signatures from the majority in order to be built. The task may be considered even more difficult due to these signatures being made public. Steenbrink pointed out that the current head of the department is a liberal Muslim who wants equal rights in the country.
Aceh is considered more devout than other areas of Muslim-majority Indonesia and Steenbrink said he does not see an immediate threat for the conditions in that region to spread across the country.
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow of at the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told FoxNews.com that these small pockets of extremism in the expansive country seems unlikely to metastasize. Islamist parties in the Parliament are weak and the country appears to be on a more stable footing than it has been in years.
"These church attacks are troubling but isolated," he said.