ACEH SINGKIL, Indonesia, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Authorities in Indonesia's conservative Aceh province on Monday began tearing down several small Christian churches after hardline Muslims demanded their closure, citing a lack of building permits, and following religious violence.
Tensions are high among the ethnically and religiously diverse population of Aceh Singkil, where last week a mob burned down a church, leaving one person dead and forcing thousands of Christians to flee the area. Armed police and military troops have been deployed to the area and evacuees have returned.
Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and the vast majority of its citizens practice a moderate form of the religion. Aceh is its only province to implement Islamic Sharia law as it was granted autonomy as part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of separatist violence.
Police in Aceh Singkil district used sledgehammers and axes to tear down the churches - little more than small, wooden structures - as Christian members of the community looked on, many of them weeping.
"Whether or not we agree, we are going ahead with it," said Paima Brutu, 35, caretaker of one Protestant church that was closed. He added the church had about 100 members.
"We have applied for the building permit again and again so at this point all we're asking the government is to be allowed to have that permit," he said.
The closures come after a meeting on Sunday of local political and religious figures, including Christians, in which all sides agreed to close the houses of worship, officials present at the meeting said.
Muslim residents, including members of the hardline group Islamic Defenders Front, had demanded that 10 churches be closed.
"On a day to day basis, the communities live in peace with each other and there is no pressure to close down these churches," said Genti Brutu, the chief of Siompin village in Aceh Singkil where at least three churches were torn down.
"But what we are told is that it is a matter of permits so we have to abide by the rules.
Dozens of armored security vehicles patrolled the streets of a cluster of villages where at least 10 churches are slated to be demolished in the coming days.
A mob of hundreds of people burned down a small church in Aceh Singkil district last week, forcing thousands of Christians to flee to neighboring villages.
One Muslim member of the mob was killed, police said last week, adding that at least 10 people had been detained on suspicion of inciting violence.
The government has since deployed 1,300 police and military personnel to the area, with hundreds more on standby, to patrol the streets and stand guard outside churches that dot the small palm oil plantations in the district.
Christian residents of the run-down village attended a service on Sunday right next to the charred remains of their church, under the guard of about a dozen armed security personnel.
"At the moment, things are calm but we are on standby for any further incidents," said Saladin, spokesman for Aceh police, adding that evacuees had since returned to their homes.