SURABAYA, Indonesia – Muslim villagers in West Java, Indonesia, on Christmas Day stopped a congregation from celebrating Christmas in a home, according to various sources.
The interference came within hours of Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s historic visits to two churches in nearby Bogor, where he urged congregations to continue harmonious relations with people of other faiths.
In Cilebut Barat, Sukaraja District, about 64 kilometers (39 miles) south of Jakarta, the group of Muslims lined up outside a home where Batak Christian Church’s Christmas Day worship was planned and kept worshippers from entering the home, according to video footage appearing on social media.
A woman from the church is heard in the video pleading with the group to leave them alone.
“Come on, many of you insult us, are tyrannizing us,” she says. “Please, the worship service is only a few minutes, so it’s up to you to talk about [relenting]. Please, come on.”
After a passerby apparently urges the Muslims to give no response, the woman repeatedly asks what loss would they incur from the service that would cause them to forbid worship on Christmas. She is repeatedly told only that the home is not a church building.
Onlookers, police officers and soldiers present make no response to the Christian woman in the video.
In North Sulawesi Province on the island of Sulawesi, nearly 20 Muslims in Buyat Selatan village, Kotabunan District stopped members of Rototok Advent Church from holding Christmas Day worship at a home, also saying a house is not a church building, according to online news outlet detik.com.
The Rev. Henrek Lokra, executive secretary of justice and peace of the Communion of Christian Churches (PGI), said the ban on home worship in Cilebut Barat arose from misunderstanding among local residents.
“Residents’ rejection of the Christmas service is an expression of misunderstanding of Christian worship and Christmas celebration,” Lokra said. “Christian worship is a fellowship of people who worship God. So as long as the requirements for building a house of worship have not [yet] been met, worship which is an existence of Christians or members of any religion may not be prohibited or inhibited.”
Local residents, religious leaders and government officials alike lack understanding of Christian fellowship, and contributing to conflict is “the weakness of religious leaders and local government officials in educating and mediating the community regarding prerequisites for establishing a house of worship,” Lokra said.
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. Well-organized radical Muslims secretly mobilize outside people to intimidate and pressure members of minority faiths.
Conflicts over religious minorities’ houses of worship have increased since the reformation era that followed the end of President Suharto’s regime in 1998. Since 2018, there have been 398 incidents of religious conflict targeting houses of worship, according to the Setara Institute.
Indonesia is ranked 28th in Open Doors 2022 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
The halts to Christmas worship notwithstanding, 2022 was memorable for many Christians in Indonesia as their president, popularly known as Jokowi, paid visits to two major churches on Christmas, a first in the country’s 77-year history.
Jokowi, a Muslim who has said politics and religion should be separate, visited and greeted Christians at Zebaoth Indonesian Protestant Church and at the Catholic Cathedral, seat of the Bogor Diocese Bishop in West Java. At Zebaoth Christian Church, according to local media, Jokowi stated that he expected all Christians to be able to celebrate this Christmas peacefully and happily.
“We should continue to maintain the relationship with each other, strengthen brotherhood and bolster harmony between us,” he said to the congregation’s applause.
Speaking before the final Mass blessing at Bogor Cathedral, Jokowi appealed for efforts to maintain a unified Indonesia.
“Let’s keep maintaining our brotherhood together and strengthening our harmony for the advancement of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia,” he reportedly said from the pulpit. “Merry Christmas, may God bless us all.”
The parish priest, the Rev. Paulus Haruno, said the visit was a special gift as there was no prior notice.
“It is a surprise and an extraordinary gift because, there was no prior notification,” Haruno told Tempo.co. “President Jokowi, who was accompanied by [Bogor] Mayor Bima Arya [Sugiarto], adds to the joy of Christmas celebration this year.”
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