- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Christian groups and some other private relief agencies are being asked to halt their work in the tsunami-ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh and leave the area by March 26, Indonesia’s defense minister said yesterday.

The decision likely will target Western and smaller church groups as the government moves to tighten control over reconstruction work in Aceh, the home of a decades-old separatist insurgency.

“We want each of the relief agencies to be transparent in their programs: Some of them are not clear about their mandates,” said Juwono Sudarsono during an interview in a Washington hotel.

“Aceh is mostly Muslim, and some church groups from Australia and the United States are too eager to be there and do their part,” he said.

Mr. Sudarsono said his government had set March 26 some weeks ago as a target date for moving from the disaster-relief phase of post-tsunami operations to the reconstruction phase.

With that goal in sight, he said, the overwhelming presence of U.S. and Western relief agencies could make members of the local Islamic community uncomfortable, adding that they would be replaced by Pakistani and Saudi Arabian workers.

The relief organizations are being asked to leave Aceh by March 26 unless Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Alwi Shihab decides they can stay, Mr. Sudarsono said.

One of the conditions for continuing work will be registering with the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Bruce Campbell-Janz of the Christian Reformed World Relief program said there were some things Christian relief groups can do “to increase [their] validity in the eyes of the government. … There needs to be significant sensitivity around religious issues.”

Speaking by telephone from Canada, Mr. Campbell-Janz said he had heard reports of some Christian agencies setting up large banners with Christian references, something he said would be considered disrespectful.

But, he said, the Indonesian government also wants to tighten its control over an area that had been closed because of a guerrilla war with separatists until the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami.

“There are likely multiple motivations — religious sensitivities and issues of control that make the government nervous,” Mr. Campbell-Janz said.

Aceh has been under emergency military rule for years as Indonesian security forces battle the armed Free Aceh Movement. The area has been in a virtual lockdown with few outsiders, including journalists, allowed in.

Human Rights Watch has said that both sides in the conflict have violated human rights with impunity. The organization has documented the security forces’ role in extrajudicial executions, “disappearances” and torture, as well as the separatists’ role in killings, unlawful detentions and forced expulsions.

Mr. Sudarsono said the tsunami had destroyed the infrastructure of some of the military, but also had wiped out the rebel infrastructure — giving both sides new incentives to negotiate.

“I think we are getting some progress,” the minister said.

Catholic Relief Services, part of the private relief effort that plays a large and vital reconstruction role in the region, said it had not been asked to leave Aceh.

“But all that can change. We are definitely keeping tabs on it. I think everyone is, because there is a long history of that happening,” said Cecile Sorra, a spokeswoman for CRS, which has been working in Indonesia since 1957.

“It’s quite possible they just want to pull everyone out and have an orderly re-entry, so they pick and choose who can come back in,” Miss Sorra said.

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