Aceh sees disasters as sign of God's wrath

Michael Bachelard April 14, 2012

"Things happen for a reason" ... Rizni Aulia believes this week's earthquake, like the one in 2004, was a warning from Allah. Photo: Michael Bachelard

WHEN pentecostal pastor Danny Nalliah thundered that the 2009 Victorian bushfires were caused by God's wrath at that state's decision to decriminalise abortion, he was an outlier even among radical Christians.

But in Aceh, Indonesia's most devout province (and its most disaster prone), it's not just common but mainstream to believe that Wednesday's terrifying earthquake, like the tsunami before it, was a messages from Allah that people were not taking their religion seriously enough.

Like many, Acehnese man Rizni Aulia's suffering from the 2004 tsunami was profound. Of his family, only he and his wife survived the wave. Together they watched from the second storey of their house as their three-year-old daughter and many other family members drowned outside, trapped in the family car.

The horror of that day came alive again on Wednesday as an earthquake shook the region, prompting fears of another deadly wave .

Mr Rizni, like thousands of other Acehnese, took refuge at the mosque. ''Some people went to the mosque because it is quite high, 16 metres,'' Mr Rizni, 32, said yesterday. ''But it's true that during the afternoon and the evening prayers, they all prayed, through all the aftershocks, they stayed there, some praying, some reading the Koran, all the mothers looking after the children.''

In Islam, he believes, natural disasters are ''little doomsdays''.

''It's about warnings from God to his people about the mistakes they have committed, the wrongdoing they have committed,'' he said.

Imam Nurcholis Muhammad Yunus, of the Al Kawa Kib village mosque, on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, is by no means a radical preacher.

He is not surprised that people flocked to places of worship to find safety.

''Since we were kids our parents taught us that the biggest protector is Allah and the mosque is Allah's house on earth,'' he said.

But, as well as faith, he said, good sense intervened. Nobody came to his mosque because it is built on a low, flat piece of land that is only protected from the sea by high walls. ''We don't blindly believe things. We also use logic,'' he says.

He believes the 2004 tsunami and Wednesday's earthquake were God's comment on the lifestyles of the people of Aceh.

''We have the rooms of some very respected clerics here, sacred people … but despite that, people here were drunk and had drugs and women, and so that is why … God was angry,'' Mr Nurcholis said.

''Now with the earthquake, the same thing has happened again, because only a few people implemented Islamic sharia.''

Of all places to attract God's wrath, Aceh is perhaps the least likely. It's Indonesia's most devout province, known as the verandah of Mecca, and the only place in this moderate Muslim country to practice sharia. Offences such as drinking, gambling and unmarried people being close to one another are punished by caning.

But Mr Rizni says most of his friends and most of the people in Aceh agree with the Imam.

They are not angry with God for the tsunami or the earthquake. Rather, they try to accept its lessons.

''I am becoming more devout compared with the way I was before the tsunami of 2004, because I believe things happen for a reason,'' Mr Rizni says.

''I think God wants us to be stronger.''

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