Celebrating Christmas and Pluralism as an Indonesian Minority

Celebrating Christmas and Pluralism as an Indonesian Minority
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What you need to know

Christmas in Indonesia this year arrives as pluralism and tolerance in the country are under attack.

A month before Christmas, the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), a group of Islamist militants, attacked the Christian-majority village of Lembantongoa in Sulawesi. Four people were murdered. The perpetrators also set fire to the Salvation Army church and houses, forcing 750 villagers to flee their homes.

Terror has become an annual occurrence in Indonesia. Almost every year there are terror attacks on churches in the country.

In 2018, three churches in Surabaya were bombed in a string of attacks that resulted in the deaths of 28 people. In 2017, protests against the construction of Santa Clara church in Bekasi turned into a riot. In 2016, a bombing at a church in Kalimantan killed a toddler and disabled another. In 2015, a church was burned in Aceh Singkil and left two people dead. These attacks on Christians have been broadly and strongly condemned by the leaders of Indonesia’s mainstream Muslim organizations.

Intolerance extends beyond the headline-grabbing outbursts of violence. Churches in Indonesia are also closing at an alarming rate. Even when some Christian churches managed to secure permits, some extremists demanded their closure.

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Men decorate a Christmas tree with masks and hand sanitizers at a church in Surabaya, East Java Province, Indonesia, December 16, 2020.

As a Chinese and a Christian, I’m a double minority — triple if my gender is taken into account. Discrimination has been my “daily food” throughout my life. Many fellow minorities have advised me to keep quiet so that no new problems arise. Some say, “We must be self-conscious as a minority” because of the risk of persecution.

But I speak out for an Indonesia that embraces its minority populations not just because of the discrimination I face, but also because of the values I formed attending a pluralism-based based school, Taruna Bakti.

I studied at Taruna Bakti from kindergarten to high school, where I had direct experience of intercultural relationships. From studying at a school that includes students and teachers of different faiths and ethnicities, I saw how a school environment not only creates tolerance but also a spirit of harmonious cooperation. School is one of the initial interaction gateways that introduces young people to people unlike themselves.

But not everyone has access to pluralistic schools. Taruna Bakti defines itself as an “assimilation” school in which students of different ethnicities and religions are deliberately mixed in activities facilitated by religious teachers of differing faiths.

Although I agree more with the concept of “acculturation” than “assimilation,” both emphasize harmony in diversity and can be grouped under the broad label of pluralism. Unfortunately, these schools are rare from West to East Indonesia.

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Dimas Anwar Saputra, a 15-year-old junior high school student, wearing a red protective mask, studies with other students using free internet wifi access that they got by exchanging plastic waste at a local district office in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 9, 2020.

Many private schools in urban areas are segregated by religious label, like Christian, Catholic, or Islamic schools. Although some of these schools recognize the importance of communication across identities, they are not pluralism based-schools.

Religious labeled schools tend not to provide for minorities. Christian schools will not employ Islamic religion teachers, or Islamic schools will not bring in Christian or Catholic religious teachers. On the other hand, the majority of public schools that I’ve seen, at least in Java, which have a mostly Muslim student body, also rarely provide religion teachers for religious minority students.

One side of this divided education system can be seen in the survey results of some of Indonesia’s Muslim youth. A 2016 Wahid Foundation survey of public senior high school Islamic spiritual organizations (Rohis) in Indonesia shows that 60% of respondents are willing to carry out Jihad missions in countries plagued by religious conflicts, with 68% of respondents willing to continue the mission in the future.

Expanding access to pluralistic curriculums in schools may take a generation. In the meantime, there are individual and community actions underway.

In education, for example, there are interfaith dialogue activities between school students driven by the Jakatarub (Jaringan Kerja Antar Umat Beragam) or Inter-Religious Work Network community in Bandung City. Through various activities that involve local residents, including arts, culture, and local economic empowerment, the Indonesian Pluralism Institute (IPI) also tries to promote pluralistic education in daily lives.

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A boy walks past a river while playing after schools closed amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 7, 2020.

In healthcare, there are the medical services carried out by doctorSHARE (Yayasan Dokter Peduli). Apart from remote areas, doctorSHARE visits places of worship, provides medical services to cross-identity communities, and emphasizes the importance of inclusiveness. I’ve been their media coordinator for over eight years and have seen how education and healthcare are critical entry points to inculcate harmony between people of different identities.

Addressing the problems of religious intolerance and violence at its roots requires government reform, too. The Joint Ministerial Decree on Houses of Worship states that the construction or renovation of houses of worship should be based on the “real needs” and “composition of the population” in the area. With a number of strict requirements, this policy creates difficulties for minority religions in obtaining permits to build houses of worship. The Blasphemy Law of 1965, issued by Sukarno to gain support from Islamic parties at that time, provided a basis to punish those who “deviate” from religious teachings. It is still on the books today, and was invoked as recently as 2017 to imprison a Christian governor.

This Christmas, I pray that the Indonesian government will be more serious in maintaining the spirit of diversity, in line with the country’s motto and the education I received. In the midst of a pandemic, what gives me hope are my friends of all faiths who join me in voicing and the importance of tolerance and the beauty of our country’s diversity.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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