Indonesian district official bans Christmas celebrations without government approval
SURABAYA, Indonesia — A high-level official in western Indonesia announced an agreement with a multi-faith body that prohibits Christmas celebrations in a district at sites without government approval.
The agreement effectively bans religious Christmas celebrations in Java Island’s Maja District, Banten Province as strict requirements and bureaucratic opposition make obtaining official worship permits impossible for small fellowships. The announcement comes despite lack of any national-level restrictions on religious Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in the Muslim-majority country.
The head of Lebak Regency in Banten Province, Iti Octavia Jayabaya, revealed the agreement with the Forum for Religious Harmony that restricts Christmas celebrations in Maja, one of 28 districts under her jurisdiction.
“There is no prohibition, but based on the results of an agreement from the Forum for Religious Harmony deliberations, Christmas joint worship [in Maja District] may only be held in places that are in accordance with the permits,” Iti said in a press statement on Saturday.
Requirements for obtaining permission to build houses of worship in Indonesia are onerous and hamper the establishment of such buildings for Christians and other faiths. Rights advocates say Indonesia’s Joint Ministerial Decree of 2006 makes requirements for obtaining permits nearly impossible for most new churches.
Even when small, new churches are able to meet the requirement of obtaining 90 signatures of approval from congregation members and 60 from area households of different religions, they are often met with delays or lack of response from officials.
Instead of celebrating Christ’s birth in prohibited venues, Iti said Christians could hold religious Christmas celebrations in nearby Rangkasbitung District. Iti, daughter of previous regent head Mulyadi Jayabaya (2003-2012), said Christians could take public transportation to Rangkasbitung, a town and district about 12 miles from Maja, for the celebrations.
“In Rangkasbitung there will be a joint [multi-faith but non-religious] Christmas celebration on Dec. 27, and the combined Christians and I will come,” Iti, a Muslim, said on Dec. 14 in Rangkasbitung at a coordination meeting for Christmas and New Year preparations, according to news outlet Kompas.com.
The former head of the Communion of Indonesian Churches, Andreas A. Yewangoe, told Morning Star News that banning Christmas celebrations in Lebak Regency should bring reproach.
“The central government must sternly reprimand the regent, since it is against the values of Pancasila and the constitution,” Yewangoe said.
Pancasila is the government’s guiding policy of unity and social justice for all of Indonesia’s various peoples. Yewangoe, one of Indonesia’s leading theologians, said a central government reprimand would represent not only a defense of Christians but would uphold the values of Pancasila and the constitution.
The right to hold religious services is solidly stated in the Indonesian Constitution, said Yewangoe, a member of the Pancasila Ideology Development Agency, a newly established government body.
“So it should be that everyone has that right,” he told Morning Star News. “That right is actually a human right which derives from God.”
There are no churches or other houses of worship for minority faiths in Maja District due to the strict regulations imposed on Christians and other minorities.
Of Lebak Regency’s more than 1.4 million inhabitants, 0.14% are Protestant Christians and 0.7% are Roman Catholics, Mumu Najamuddin, head of the Cross-Religious Forum of Lebak Regency states on the Banten Department of Religious Affairs’ website (banten.kemenag.go.id).
Social activist Ignas Iryanto Djou said Iti’s restriction contradicts the cultural values of the Sunda ethnic group to which she belongs.
“It is against the basic principles of the Sundanese community that inherently requires people to love each other regardless of differences,” Ignas told Morning Star News. “There are also three principles of interaction in Sundanese society — helping one another, loving one another and caring for one another to grow fully as human beings.”
All these values are in line with Pancasila, he said.
“And it is why Pancasila should be obeyed by all citizens without exception,” Ignas said. “Besides, the right to worship according to one’s beliefs is a basic human right that is recognized as an element of human rights.”
Contradicting national permission
Iti’s announcement came a day after the Indonesian government confirmed that no restrictions on worship activities and celebrations would be applied to this year’s Christmas and subsequent New Year’s celebrations.
Muhadjir Effendy Muhadjir, coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, made the announcement during a security coordination meeting for Christmas and New Year’s at National Police Headquarters in Jakarta on Dec. 16, saying, “For this year, there will be no restrictions for the Christmas and New Year celebrations.”
Two years ago, a small number of Christians in two districts of West Sumatra Province — Dharmasraya Regency’s Pulau Punjung District and Sijunjung Regency’s Nagari Sungai Tambang — were prohibited from celebrating Christmas. The ban, authorities said, was imposed as the result of an agreement among leaders of various government officials and Muslim groups that excluded Christians in early December 2019.
Yewangoe of the BPIP said that in some areas of Indonesia, religious rights have been denied.
“This indeed cannot yet be considered an indication or conclusion that harmony among religious people is broken,” he said. “But if religious rights have not been handled properly, of course over time it will break too.”
Reforms granting greater speech freedoms following the end of former President Suharto’s regime may have contributed to a backlash from Muslims, including injustice for those accused of religious defamation, Yewangoe said.
For example, a Christian convert from Islam, Mohammad Kace, was sentenced to 10 years on charges of blasphemy, while Yahya Waloni, a Muslim convert from Christianity, in January was sentenced to only five months in prison for hate speech. A two-star general and inmates reportedly smeared Kace with his own feces during his incarceration.
A Buddhist mother named Meliana in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra Province, in July 2016 complained about the sound of the call to prayer, and two years later — after Islamist rioting destroyed her home and 14 Buddhist temples — she was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Massive protests helped obtain her release on parole in May 2019.
Some declarations about Christianity are blatantly insulting but bring no prosecution, Yewangoe said.
“If this continues, in the end people will no longer believe in [enforcement of] the law,” he said.
After the security coordination meeting on Dec. 16, National Police Chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo said all levels of national police and the Indonesian Defense Forces (TNI) would provide security over Christmas and New Year’s.
“Apart from the TNI and National Police, we have agreed to include elements from the community, mass organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth wing Ansor Youth Movement (GP Ansor) and Banser to secure the events,” Prabowo said.
Indonesia ranked 28th on the Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Indonesian society has adopted a more conservative Islamic character, and churches involved in evangelistic outreach are at risk of being targeted by Islamic extremist groups, according to Open Doors’ WWL report.
“There are certain hotspots, such as West Java or Aceh, where extremist groups are strong and exert a strong influence on society and politics,” the report states. “In some regions, church groups face difficulties getting permission to build churches. Even if they manage to fulfill all legal requirements (including winning court cases), the local authorities still often ignore them.”
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