On December 6th, as hundreds of Christians in Bandung, West Java, were lighting their candles and singing “Silent Night,” a group of radical Muslims stormed inside the building shouting “Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great Allah is great) and demanded the celebration to be stopped. The Christmas service, which was mostly comprised of students, was gathering to hear visiting Chinese-Indonesian Pastor and singer Stephen Tong from Jakarta.
One of the leaders from Akademi Dahwah Indonesia (ADI) and Pembela Ahlu Sunnah (PAS) in West Java, Mohammad Roin Balad, claimed that the Christian meeting was against the law. They averred that Christians had tried to convert people by inviting them to the service by placing advertisements on public transportation. They also claimed that public places could not be used for religious activities. The building where the meeting was held, the Gedung Sasana Budaya Ganesha, is owned by the Technology Institute Bandung and is also used for Islamic events.
The radical group also claimed that the Christians did not have a permit to hold the meeting. The Mayor of Bandung, who is known for his tolerance, made a statement that the event was already coordinated and that the Christmas celebration should continue. In spite of this statement, the Muslim group prevented the service from continuing. The committee for the service has since issued a written statement that all legal requirements for the meeting had been fulfilled.
Almost ironically, shortly before the group stormed the building, the pastor had just prayed for the students to be able to live out the love that Jesus has given to them, saying “Let us go home with a thankful heart. Let us love God and others with the love of Jesus Christ just as He commanded us to. Christmas is not a day for hatred but Christmas is a day for reconciliation and peace.”
This attack on religious freedom comes at a tense time for Indonesia and for minorities in the country. Chinese-Christian Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, has been the source of ire among hardline Muslims and the cause for the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Jakarta, many who feel they should not be governed by a Christian. Historically, minorities have suffered during times of tension in Indonesia. In 1998, much of the political and economic frustration among Indonesians was taken out on ethnic and religious minorities, including Chinese and Christians. Chinese Christians in Indonesia have expressed fear of a repeat of a flare of violence against them. It is also worth noting that the ethnicity of the visiting minister, who is Chinese-Indonesian, may have played a role in further kindling anger among radical Muslims.
Despite increased persecution against Christians in Indonesia, some moderate Muslims are voicing their support of religious tolerance. Last weekend 30,000 people rallied in Jakarta to support religious tolerance and unity in Indonesia. Leaders from both of Indonesia’s largest organizations have spoken out in support of the Christmas service and berated radical Muslims who try to discriminate against Christians. They promised to help protect Christians during the week of Christmas and to facilitate dialogue with hardline Muslims to encourage tolerance and religious freedom. The Indonesian government has also pledged to deploy 155,000 police officers to help increase security during the week of Christmas, a time in which Christians are particularly vulnerable. Whether or not added police presence will protect Christians remains to be seen. Even the night of the Christmas service, locals have claimed to ICC that a police force was posted outside the building to protect the Christians. Not only did they fail to stop the radicals, they even assisted in disrupting the service.
Christianity is one of the six religions recognized by the Indonesian government, and Christians are guaranteed religious freedom in Indonesia. Although most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate, increasingly vocal radical groups have been gaining ground politically and threatening the freedom and safety of minorities.