| A prayer meeting in Kwangju, near Seoul. (Reuters)
Banda Aceh (Indonesia), Jan. 5: Aceh's highly influential Islamic clerics have explained the giant wave that devastated this overwhelmingly Muslim region as a warning to the faithful that they must more strictly observe their religion, including a ban on Muslims killing Muslims.
The infusion of religious meaning into the tragedy, in a province already known as Indonesia's most fervently Muslim area, suggested the consequences of the December 26 tsunami could extend well beyond the death toll. The sweeping destruction has torn apart the infrastructure on the northern part of Sumatra island.
The idea that the killing on both sides of a years-old conflict between secessionist rebels and Indonesia's military helped bring divine wrath could affect the way Aceh's 4.7 million residents view the central government in Jakarta.
At the same time, the devout people of this region, who seem to have embraced their clerics' views, could demand even tighter strictures in Aceh, which is already governed by Islamic law, or sharia.
The extent of Islamic influence across Aceh has been on display from the moment the wave swept in from the Indian Ocean and flattened an uncounted number of towns, villages and neighbourhoods.
Down almost every road, mosques immediately took in refugees, setting up tents and organising food distribution before the provincial government or international aid agencies got relief operations up and running.
Azhari Banta Ali, a provincial official, said village and neighbourhood clerics across Aceh province have traditionally acted in tandem with local administrators in matters affecting their followers.
The Islamic clerics here have little sense of hierarchy, he added, meaning the imam of each mosque wields strong moral authority within his own area. 'Wherever you go in Aceh, you will see the village leader and the imam working together,' Banta Ali said.
'One is the religious leader, the other is the government leader at the lowest level of the administration.'
In this atmosphere, the swift care provided around mosques and the interpretation handed down in sermons and individual counselling by local clerics seemed likely to be decisive for years to come in how the people of Aceh understand the tragedy that has befallen them. 'God is angry with Aceh people, because most of them do not do what is written in the Quran and the Hadith,' the collected sayings and actions of the prophet Mohammad, explained Cut Bukhaini, 35, a cleric.
'I hope this will lead all Muslims in Aceh to do what is in the Quran and its teachings. If we do so, God will be merciful and compassionate.'
Bukhaini, surrounded by refugees camping on the grounds of his Baitush Shakhir mosque in Banda Aceh's Ulee Kareng district, said people here were guilty of forgetting their obligation to pray five times a day and of concentrating too much on earning money rather than living according to their religion.
Moreover, he explained, they offended the Almighty by entering into a conflict in which 'Muslims killed Muslims' in contravention of Quranic strictures.
The provincial rebellion, by a group known as the Free Aceh Movement, began as an effort to split the region from Jakarta's rule.
Although the movement has Islamic overtones, its goals are primarily separatist, and the conflict has never revolved around religion.
The soldiers dispatched here to put it down are Muslims, as are the rebels, and the central government has always voiced pride in Indonesia's role as the world's most populous Muslim nation.
In that light, Bukhaini said, the conflict was unlawful under Islam, with guilt shared by both sides and the people of Aceh paying a terrible price. Clerics have said the disaster should be a lesson to Muslims to more closely observe Islamic laws.