Carollers bring Christmas cheer to streets of Jakarta for the first time

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JAKARTA - Groups of singers brought cheer to Jakarta's main streets filling the air with Christmas carols and tunes on Thursday (Dec 19) evening - the first time ever in the capital of the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

Around 30 carollers, clad in black and white attire with a red scarf made of North Sumatra cloth or ulos, sang a series of popular Christmas songs to almost 200 people at Dukuh Atas Park in Central Jakarta.

Over near Jakarta's iconic roundabout Bundaran Hotel Indonesia in Central Jakarta, a five-member band played popular tunes such as Feliz Navidad and All I Want For Christmas Is You to dozens of people. The event was supported by the Jakarta government, according to its organiser.

Jakarta resident Dava Kholifah, who was at the roundabout, said: "I think this event is positive, especially for Christians. I hope it can be held each year to bring something different (to the city)," she told The Straits Times.

The 18-year-old Muslim university student also said people of other religions should hold such events in public spaces. "It's necessary for us so that we can develop tolerance among followers of different religions."

Such celebrations held outdoors in the heart of the city were the first Jakarta has seen.

Most Christians in the country usually kept a low profile in their Christmas celebrations.

While the majority of Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam, vocal conservative groups have campaigned for intolerant values and have occasionally taken to the streets and committed anarchic acts.

Bank employee Lydia, who goes by one name, also shared her appreciation of the Christmas carolling event at Dukuh Atas Park. "This is new. I feel like I am overseas," said Lydia, a Christian in her 50s.

"We are tired of having tensions," she said, referring to the highly-divisive April presidential election, which saw political groups play the religion card to support Mr Prabowo Subianto, the only challenger to incumbent President Joko Widodo.

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In recent years, Indonesia has seen rising tensions in the political field involving religious issues.

This was especially evident in Jakarta, where the 2017 gubernatorial election became a battleground between Dr Anies Baswedan, a Muslim of Arab descent, and incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent.

Dr Anies defeated Mr Basuki, better known as Ahok, who was then sentenced to two years' jail for blasphemy against Islam.

On Thursday evening, Governor Anies rode his bike from the city hall to the roundabout a few kilometers away and was welcomed by Jakarta residents, who asked to take selfies with him against the background of the Christmas carolling.

"We have built a third space - pavements - for cultural events and we facilitate all to perform there. Nearing the Christmas festivities, we're giving a chance to communities to hold this event," he told ST about the event, where he mingled with the audience.

A middle-aged woman, after taking his picture with her phone camera, said: "God bless you, Pak Anies."

The governor is said to be attempting to fix ties with minority groups and sprucing his image as he is widely believed to be preparing to run for the 2024 presidential election.

His popularity has picked up in the national politics since being in office.

When asked if the event was politically motivated, he said: "It's too far. Let's celebrate (it)."

The Christmas carolling began on Wednesday and will run until Friday, from 5pm to 7pm Jakarta time at 11 spots, including several MRT stations.

The singers come not just from Jakarta but also neighbouring cities of Tangerang and Bandung, and include award-winning choir Bandung-based Parahyangan Catholic University and Mission Youth for Christ Choir of Tangerang-based Pelita Harapan University.

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