An armed police officer is silhouetted against against a church decoration in Depok, south of Jakarta, on Christmas eve. (Antara Photo/Indrianto Eko Suwarso)
As Christians across Indonesia streamed into churches to attend Christmas masses and services this year, they couldn’t possibly miss the heavy security presence. The sight may be surprising if not disconcerting for Christians elsewhere but heavy security at festivals held by religious minority groups has become the norm in Indonesia.
The question remains why it is necessary at all.
There’s no denying that the initiative to “secure” religious minority events is laudable. The media was filled with reports about how police officers conducted bomb sweeps in churches and how moderate Muslim youth groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama's Banser activists volunteered to stand guard to help ensure that Christians were able to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Indeed tales of heroism aren’t in short supply, especially with regard to the voluntary brigade. In 2000, for example, a NU Banser member by the name of Riyanto perished while on duty at the Eben Haezer Church in Mojokerto, East Java. His bravery in volunteering to help guard a church was in no question as the year was precarious, witnessing multiple bomb attacks on churches in the country. It was doubly affirmed in his decision to dash out of the church carrying a bomb he had spotted inside. The bomb detonated outside, killing Riyanto in the process.
Fifteen years have passed since Riyanto’s sacrifice and yet Christians still can’t feel wholly safe when publicly celebrating their most important festivals such as Christmas and Easter without the “protection” of security personnel. While most Indonesian Christians who grew up in the Reformasi era may consider Christmas with guards as a run-of-the-mill thing, the older generations may still remember it wasn’t always like that.
The 1998 Reformasi may have given birth to democracy for Indonesia but it also spawned an increased level of lawlessness that religious minorities have to face. The Jakarta-based Setara Institute chronicled a consistently worrying state of religious freedom in the country. In 2012 there were 145 cases of government abuse of religious freedom, with a total of 264 cases of attacks against religious minorities. The figures for 2013 didn’t show much improvement.
In the run-up to Christmas this year, supporters of the hard-line vigilante group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) paid visits to several shopping malls in Surabaya to warn businesses against “forcing” their Muslim employees to don Christmas paraphernalia in the line of duty. Interestingly, however, the malls under the FPI watch are traditionally viewed as those most frequented by middle-class non-Muslim Surabaya residents.
Even more noteworthy was the support given to the FPI by the Surabaya Police for these vigilante actions. The media liaison officer of the Surabaya Police, Adj. Sr. Comr. Lily Djafar, confirmed that all the district police headquarters in Surabaya had sent letters to businesses under their jurisdiction with advice to refrain from overt Christmas displays for their shops. She reasoned that it was important so as not to give reason for FPI to raid these businesses.
Prior to the FPI round-the-town patrol, the government-funded Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from participating in Christmas celebrations, though it later denied the fatwa meant that Muslims weren’t allowed to convey Christmas good wishes to Christians. However, it certainly emboldened one Facebook commentator to warn Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil against entering any church during the Christmas season, which the latter rejected completely, in the name of pluralism.
Admittedly, not all Muslims were to be cowed by MUI’s nannyish injunction. Twelve students from the Islamic State University (UIN) Walisongo in Semarang turned up at a Roman Catholic church to wish everyone a merry Christmas and even stayed to listen to mass.
The courage of these Muslim students was no doubt extraordinary. Their action would have elicited criticism from among the more orthodox sections of their own faith. These students were evidently more courageous than the police officers who, rather than standing firm in defense of pluralism, chose to counsel individual citizens to sacrifice their constitutionally guaranteed freedom in the face of bullies.
Given the information imparted Wikileaks cables that a number of former police generals were linked to the FPI, the blatant refusal by the police to defend minority rights is sinister. But after so many surreal breaches of trust, it becomes harder and harder to believe that police neglect of duty is not the norm in this country.
In a metaphor more suited to Easter, like Pontius Pilate, the police washed their hands of responsibility for allowing the FPI to conduct raids on businesses that overtly acknowledged the Christmas season. Like in all the cases of church closures in the last decade, the police never worked up the courage or perhaps the will to protect minorities from unlawful acts.
Christians sometimes refer to Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace. So it seems highly ironic that the celebration of his birth in Indonesia has been tainted with specters of unease, evident in the presence of armed guards. Noble volunteers from non-government bodies such as Banser aside, the permanent presence of police officers at Christmas becomes a hollow form of compensation by the state for allowing religious extremism to fester, even 15 years after the bold sacrifice of Riyanto, a private citizen who wanted to do something for his fellow human beings.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.