In Indonesia, Christmas spirit confined to its malls

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Malls in Jakarta are decked to the halls this holiday season.

The massive rotunda at one central shopping mall boasts a giant snow globe containing the North Pole. Another has taken an Indonesian twist on Christmas by dressing jolly white-bearded Santas in stripes and conical hats and placing them in rice fields. Yet another Jakarta mall recently captured an award from the Indonesian Museum of Records for building Asia’s largest Lego Santa.

Almost all of the city’s commercial malls, of which there are many, have piped in Christmas music. In the evenings, they have choirs that sing about the birth of Jesus.

But the spirit of Christmas appears confined to Jakarta’s commercial spaces, a reality made all the more stark after hundreds of fanatical Muslims forced a group of Christians from the seven homes where they were worshipping last Sunday.

The mob were mostly supporters of a small group of extremists called the Islamic Defenders Front, which has gained notoriety for its thug-like tactics that include raids on bars and threats to celebrities they accuse of debasing Islam.

(Read Vigilante jihad: Inside Indonesia's Islamic Defender's Front.)

They said the Christians — members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church — were illegally worshipping in their homes, since a 2006 government regulation on houses of worship requires religious groups to get the support of local residents before they can establish a place of prayer.

Rights groups said the decree makes it nearly impossible for Christians to set up churches in neighborhoods where they are the minority — which is often the case in Indonesia, where about 90 percent of the population is Muslim.

The December 12th incident is the latest in a rash of recent confrontations between Muslims and Protestants living in areas surrounding Jakarta, and rights groups say it is a sign of growing intolerance in a country U.S. President Barack Obama just hailed for its religious pluralism during his recent visit here.

In September, a series of clashes between the Front and the Batak Church in Bekasi, an industrial suburb of Jakarta, turned violent when one church leader was stabbed and several members were beaten.

Groups that support religious pluralism said the government has not done enough to crack down on extremists who threaten Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance and they’ve called on President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono to uphold the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

“What the government should do is enforce the law,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Jakarta. “What it should not do is create this kind of decree that discriminates against minorities.”

The government said the house of worship regulation applies to all religions and is necessary to prevent conflict in society. Officials say Sunday’s clash was based on a “technical matter” involving building permits rather than sectarian conflict.

“In Indonesia all people are free to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes, as it is protected by the constitution,” said Kusuma Habir, director of public diplomacy at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and a frequent spokesperson on Indonesia’s democratic transition, which began more than a decade ago. “But there are problems when it involves the establishment of a place of worship as this involves building permits, land ownership and the maintenance of order among members of the community.”

The Batak Christians say they are forced to use their homes to worship since the government has consistently denied their requests to build a church.

Since Yudhoyono won Indonesia’s first direct elections in 2004, more than 400 churches have faced violent threats from mobs demanding that they close down, according to the Indonesian Communion of Churches. Some churches have been destroyed or burned. But few cases have gone to court and the government has rejected appeals from religious rights activists to change the 2006 decree.

Indonesia is a secular state that recognizes a citizen’s right to worship one of six state-sanctioned religions, including Christianity. The right is enshrined in the Constitution and is part of the state philosophy known as Pancasila, but Bonar Tigor Naipospos, head of the Setara Institute for religious pluralism, said Indonesia has a difficult time separating religion from politics.

“If these radical groups are trying to replace Pancasila with Sharia law they are in violation of the constitution,” he said.

Nasaruddin Umar, the head of Islamic community guidance at the Religious Affairs Ministry, denies that that the government has not properly addressed recent clashes. He said every group has the right to demonstrate in a democracy, explaining that the respect for free speech is a positive sign in a country that only emerged from Suharto’s iron-fisted leadership 12 years ago.

Some officials blame recent violence on a lack of police presence. Others point out that police did arrest several suspects after the stabbing in Bekasi in September, including the head of the local arm of the Islamic Defender’s Front. He is now in prison awaiting trial.

The Front accuses Christian groups of proselytizing and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. They say they are only trying to protect their religion by protesting aggressive congregations, such as the Batak Christians.

Indonesian society is generally considered to be tolerant and moderate — though an influx of migrants into conservative Muslim neighborhoods outside Jakarta has driven an uptick in intolerant behavior in the past four years. In some cases, Muslim residents in mixed religious communities have complained that congregations disturb the neighborhood with their prayers and singing.

The weeks leading up to Christmas have been fraught with religious tension since 2000, when a series of church bombings took place in Jakarta. In early December, police uncovered several homemade bombs near a church in Central Java, prompting the government to put security forces on high alert for terrorist activity.

The malls are another story. Harsono said commercial Christianity is acceptable in Indonesia because it makes money. And, so far, the plight of the Batak appears not to have dampened the Christmas shopping spirit.