WHEN Pentecostal pastor Danny Nalliah thundered that the 2009 Victorian bushfires were caused by God’s wrath at the state’s decision to decriminalise abortion, he was an outlier even among radical Christians.
Imam Nurcholis Muhammad Yunus from the Al Kawa Kib mosque near Banda Aceh. Photo: Michael Bachelard
But in Aceh, Indonesia’s most devout province – and its most disaster-prone – it is mainstream to believe that Wednesday’s terrifying earthquake, like the tsunami before it, were messages from God that people were not taking their religion seriously enough.
Rizni Aulia, 32, works as a cameraman for a production house in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Like many, his suffering from the 2004 tsunami was profound – of his family, only he and his wife survived the wave. They watched from the second storey of their house as their three-year-old daughter and many other family members drowned outside.
The horror of that day came alive again on Wednesday as an earthquake shook the region, prompting fears that at any moment another deadly wave would rise from the sea.
Mr Rizni, like thousands of other Acehnese, took refuge at the mosque and stayed all night. He said there was a practical as well as a spiritual dimension to their decisions.
“Some people went to the mosque because it is quite high, 16 metres,” Mr Rizni told The Saturday Age. But they were there to pray too. ”Through all the aftershocks, they stayed there, some praying, some reading the Koran.”
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 al-Kawakib village mosque on the outskirts of Banda Aceh is not surprised that people flocked to places of worship to find safety as the earthquake rattled their homes.
“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.
He believes the 2004 tsunami was God’s comment on the lifestyles of the people of Aceh and Wednesday’s earthquake was another.
“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.
Of all places to attract God’s wrath, the devout province of Aceh is perhaps the least likely. Offences such as drinking, gambling and unmarried people being close to one another are punished here by caning.
But Mr Rizni says most people in Aceh agree with the imam.
“I am becoming more devout compared with the way I was before the tsunami of 2004, because I believe things happen for a reason,” he says. “I think God wants us to be stronger.”