Christmas Cheer and Rotten Eggs

A combination of Christmas cheer and religious intolerance highlight the complexity of inter-faith relations in Indonesia

A run though of news stories relating to Christmas can help illuminate various tussles taking place to define the limits of interfaith tolerance in Indonesia.

Heightened Security

Christmas celebrations took place amid a backdrop of heightened vigilance, with security efforts at Christmas increased ever since the 2000 Christmas Eve bomb attacks. This year an extensive security effort from police and non-governmental organisations was in place. The Nahdlatul Ulama Banser, an affiliate organisation of one the two largest Muslim groups in Indonesia, took part in the security effort, as it has in previous years.

Justification for the security alert was provided when on Christmas day a bomb was found outside a Police Station in in Poso, central Sulawesi, but was defused before it could detonate. It is unclear as to whether it was deliberately timed to coincide with Christmas celebrations, as this is just the latest in a series of attacks on police in late 2012.

Wrangling over Christmas Greetings

Less dramatic than the security effort, but with perhaps more relevance to the everyday lives of most Indonesians was the debate over whether it was permitted for Muslims to wish Christians a merry Christmas (selamat Natal). A representative from the quasi-official Indonesian Council of Ulama, Ma’ruf Amin, advised against Muslims wishing a happy Christmas to Christians. However, this advice was disputed by the Minister of Religion, Suryadharma Alias well as figures from Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations. Moreover,  Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, Governor of Jakarta, after some hesitation, said merry Christmas and attended the open house of his Christian vice Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Jokowi also visited both Protestant and Catholic places of worship and allocated funds for good works. Additionally, despite Criticism from some hardlines groups, a spokesman for SBY confirmed that he would be attending National Christmas celebrations.

Obstructions to worship in West Java

Tension over the freedom of minorities to worship freely has been particularly problematic following a 2006 Decree relating to the construction of houses of worship, and conflict over the issue was evident this Christmas. In Bekasi members of the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church were prevented from carrying out a service and were pelted with rotten eggs (a sense of the tense atmosphere is evident on this Indonesian television report). In Bogor local residents and officials stopped the GKI Yasmin congregation from entering their church for a Christmas service. Both of these occurred despite Supreme Court Rulings in the favour of these congregations which had overturned local government decisions. In protest, the congregations held a service outside the Presidential Palace. Further prominence was given to the issue by Ignatius Suharyo, the Catholic archbishop of Jakarta, who criticised the difficulty of getting permission for the building of churches.

A Mixed Picture

So overall one can take both negatives and positives from Indonesia this Christmas. Encapsulating this mixed situation is the role of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an organisation often in the news for encouraging intolerance and violence in the name of Islam. Indeed, they seemed to be living up to their reputation when an FPI representative called on president SBY to not attend the National Christmas celebrations. Moreover, in Magelang, Central Java, the Secretary of the local FPI Consultative Council had complained that the holding of Christmas celebrations on a field next to the main mosque would ‘offend the feelings of the Muslim community’. However, a glimmer of hope was also evident in Makassar, Sulawesi, where the FPI helped in the Christmas security effort .

A central theme in the Christmas story is finding the good in unpromising circumstances. Given the above, it is a story with much contemporary relevance for Indonesia.