Christmas of contrasts in Indonesia

18 December 2014 9:15AM

Christmas is a time of year when Indonesia’s state motto of ‘Unity in Diversity’ is really put to the test. The holiday provokes a variety of responses from the Muslim-majority population, ranging from taking selfies with shopping mall Christmas trees and celebrating with Christian friends to refusing to wish others a ‘Merry Christmas’, or, in extreme cases, violently interrupting church activities.

Christianity accounts for two of the six officially recognised faiths in Indonesia, split into Protestantism and Catholicism. Some pockets of the country are majority-Christian, especially in the eastern islands and in parts of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Major cities also have substantial Christian populations, including many ethnic Chinese Indonesians. Among communities where Christianity is a long-established faith, Christmas is celebrated openly with a mix of Western and indigenous traditions.

In Jakarta’s city centre, Christmas lights can be found everywhere, along with banners wishing citizens a happy Christmas and New Year. Competition is high among the capital’s most extravagant shopping malls to out-do one another with their holiday displays, involving forests of spangled Christmas trees, mountains of fake snow and the obligatory pop Christmas albums on repeat.

But in areas where Christianity is seen as expanding into new territory and gaining converts, the atmosphere is entirely different.

In parts of Java, newspaper headlines regularly warn against ‘Christianisation’, despite Islam’s unquestionable dominance among the Indonesian population as a whole. In Bogor, a town in West Java  that brushes the edges of Jakarta’s urban sprawl, a Protestant congregation has been battling for the right to open a church. The planned church building was sealed in 2010 by a former mayor who said it lacked the required permits and community support. Four years and two favourable Supreme Court rulings later, the congregation has still not been allowed to enter their church building. They plan to spend yet another Christmas worshiping on the footpath in front of the sealed church, potentially under threat of confrontation with opponents of the service, as has been the case in past years.

Christmas and New Year celebrations are guarded across the nation by security forces as part of an activity known as ‘Operation Candle’. This year, almost 146,000 security personnel will be stationed at churches and other sites for worship and celebration across Indonesia. Throughout the year, churches around Indonesia come under attack by hardliners, usually under the pretext of accusations related to a lack of building permits and community endorsement. One of the major criticisms of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 10 years in office was his lack of action on growing religious intolerance in Indonesia.

During this year’s election campaign, rumours calling the now-President Jokowi a closet Christian were designed to detract from his widespread popularity. This in itself signals a poor state of interfaith relations, suggesting that voters were expected to be swayed by a candidate’s religion over his credentials. To Jokowi’s credit, rather than distancing himself from the rumours surrounding his faith, Jokowi plans to celebrate Christmas in Papua, where Christians are the majority.

These plans were made before a deadly clash occurred between civilians and security forces in the province last week, in which five locals were killed. Now some church leaders have withdrawn their invitation to the President, in protest over his refusal to make a statement on the incident. Nonetheless, government representatives have claimed that the visit will go ahead on 27 December.

It seems unlikely at this point that Jokowi could get away with visiting Papua and not making a statement on last week’s deaths. In this way, the visit has the potential to address two important areas said to have suffered under the previous government: religious tolerance and recognition of human rights abuses. The question now is whether Jokowi will take the opportunity to deliver a Christmas message of peace and goodwill among all Indonesians.