Indonesian civil society decries restrictions on Christmas celebration in West Sumatra

An Indonesian Muslim woman serves her customers at a Christmas decoration shop in Surabaya, Indonesia on Dec 20, 2019. In some places, Christmas celebrations are restricted. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Civil society and rights groups have condemned two Christian-minority regencies in West Sumatra province for restricting Christmas celebrations to within church premises only.

However, neither regency Dharmasraya nor Sijunjun has churches, so Christians there will have to travel to the nearest church in Sawahlunto town, some 142km and 40km away respectively.

The stance by at least these two local regency administrations in the province whose 97 per cent of its population are Muslims is against the norm in Indonesia.

In most other places like Jakarta, Christmas celebrations are allowed and - in a first - took the festivities to the capital's main streets last week with carollers and live music.

But in some places, they are restricted, showing rising Islamic conservatism in Indonesia.

To further complicate matters, the country with the world's largest Muslim population started to launch a decentralisation drive at the turn of the century, reducing Jakarta's control over the regions.

The regulatory responsibility in Indonesia has been delegated to the regions - cities and regencies - since early 2000, as mandated by the 1999 decentralisation law. More than 500 cities and regencies make up the more than 30 provinces in Indonesia.

Pro-pluralism Wahid Foundation director Yenny Wahid said that practising any religion is a right guaranteed by the country's Constitution, and stressed the fact that allowing Christmas celebrations at home on the condition that guests are not invited reflects a double standard approach applied by local administrations.

"This is unequal treatment (for the Christians). This is clearly against our Constitution that guarantees equality," Ms Yenny said on Sunday (Dec 22), as was reported by news portal Any bylaws issued by any regency or city across Indonesia cannot contradict stipulations in Indonesia's 1945 Constitution.

Ms Yenny added that practising a religion at home and inviting guests and relatives over for religious activities are normal practices in Indonesia. She cited as an example Muslims who regularly hold Quran recital gatherings in private residences, attended by many guests.

There are about 22 Christian families in Dharmasraya regency, whose total population was recorded at 201,000 in 2014, according to government data. Sijunjung regency has similar demography.

The Indonesian Nationalists Students Movement (GMNI) appealed on Sunday to President Joko Widodo to intervene in West Sumatra to ensure freedom of religion.

"We strongly condemn any form of discrimination against any religion or any faith as it is against the basic spirit of the Pancasila," GMNI chairman Imanuel Cahyadi said in a statement issued on Sunday (Dec 22). Pancasila is Indonesia's state ideology whose main principle, among others, is to respect pluralism.

He called on the government to review the controversial Article 14 of the 2006 joint regulation issued by the Religious Affairs Minister and Domestic Affairs Minister, which has rampantly been used as a tool to promote intolerance and hamper freedom of religion.

Article 14 stipulates that any planned construction of a place of worship must be backed by 90 verified residents of the corresponding faith, and a further 60 residents in the immediate radius of the place of worship. In addition, recommendation letters from the city or regency administration and local religious leaders are required. This in many cases has hindered the construction of churches.

Mr Hendri, head of the Religious Affairs Ministry's West Sumatra office, said in a statement on Sunday (Dec 22) that restrictions on Christmas celebrations were discussed and agreed upon by relevant parties in a Dec 16 meeting attended by representatives from local community leaders and the inter-religion dialog forum (FKUB), among others.

"They agreed in the meeting that together they would maintain security, order and harmony among all devotees. Christians are not banned from practising their religion, but if they do it in a group, go ahead and do it at designated places as we have agreed," Mr Hendri, who goes by a single name, said in the statement.

Ms Yenny, however, questioned how the agreement in the Dec 16 meeting was reached, and raised her suspicions that the Christians, likely being in the minority, at the meeting had been pressured to agree to the terms.

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