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In Indonesia, Christmas spirit confined to its malls

As Christmas approaches in Indonesia, tensions simmer between Protestants and Muslims.

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.