Non-Muslims in Aceh are allowed to choose between whipping and prison. Photo credit: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

Two Indonesian Christians were whipped in public earlier this week in Banda Aceh, the capital of the Sumatran province of Aceh, as a crowd took photos and jeered.

Dahlan Sili Tongga, 61, and Tjia Nyuk Hwa, 45, were being punished for breaking Sharia (Islamic law) by playing a game at a children’s entertainment centre, which the authorities judged to be tantamount to gambling. Tongga and Hwa were whipped six and seven times respectively on Tuesday, 27 February.

Aceh is the only province in Indonesia governed by Sharia, and Sharia courts impose hundreds of whippings every year. Previously, the laws only applied to Muslims, but this changed in December 2013, when they became effective for members of all religious groups.

As a local source told World Watch Monitor, life as a non-Muslim is very restricted in the province, which is led by an ex-militia from former separatist group GAM. Aceh’s authorities do not allow new churches to be established, whereas in other provinces that is still possible.

“Sometimes it seems that religion is just a tool to gain and retain power, which is very common in many Muslim countries, as there is no separation between religious and political domains,” said World Watch Monitor’s source. “And in politics, targeting Christians is a classic manoeuvre to garner votes and support from Muslims.”

Furthermore, Aceh’s regulations stipulate a strict dress code, prohibiting all women from wearing tight clothes and requiring them to adhere to hijab (Islamic dress). Citizens in Central Aceh who fail to comply with the Muslim dress code forfeit their right to assistance from local public or private institutions, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The cases of Christians being subjected to flogging are rare because the number of Christians in Aceh is small – they make up around 1.2 per cent (about 50,000 people) of the province’s population.

But although Christians are rarely whipped, World Watch Monitor’s source mentioned multiple cases where Christians were harassed – for example unmarried Christian couples being dragged to a religious office for walking together (Sharia prohibits physical proximity between unmarried people), only for it to be clarified later that they were Christians.

Non-Muslims in Aceh are allowed to choose between being punished under Sharia or civil code. Some prefer whipping over potential imprisonment.