By Robin Gomes
The Indonesian president on Friday joined Christians at the National Christmas celebrations, evoking the principles of harmony, cohesion and diversity that the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation is founded on.
President Joko Widodo joined the celebrations with some 10,000 Catholics and Protestants in attendance at Bogor’s Sentul International Convention Centre, West Java province. Several government officials also accompanied him.
The theme of the event sponsored by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Indonesia (KWI) and the Council of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) was “Let’s be friends to anybody”, taken from the Gospel of John (15:14-15).
The initiative was divided into two parts. After the Holy Mass celebrated by KWI president, Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo, archbishop of Jakarta, followed the festivities.
Commenting on the theme of friendship, Cardinal Suharyo explained it was to acknowledge the fact that as Indonesians they feel that their sense of brotherhood and good social relations have been disrupted by “hate speeches, which had not been heard for a long time but which now suddenly seem to reappear.” The other issue is “identity politics, which is spreading intolerance.”
In light of this, the cardinal said, “we had to make our Christmas celebrations more down-to-earth by adopting a theme that calls upon us to reach out in friendship towards others.”
Unity in diversity
Addressing participants, President Widodo said that Christmas celebrations offer the best opportunity to reiterate social cohesion.
“This is the time when we celebrate good social relations,” said the president. “We are called to celebrate and show our gratitude for our diversity. Such a marvellous diversity has united us as a nation.”
"We must maintain such good social unity, which we have been able to guarantee for decades,” he noted, adding though that things “might become volatile due to many provocations that could split us.”
"The Pancasila guarantees the freedom to adopt a religion and people are free to express their faith,” explained the president. “I want to reiterate here, once again, that the state guarantees these rights.”
The Pancasila are the 5 principles that form the philosophical and political ideology of the Indonesian state, ensuring unity amidst religious pluralism in an officially secular system.
Restrictions to Christian worship
Widodo's statement came in the wake of recent controversies over freedom of worship for religious minorities in a country where some 87% of the population professes Islam. This year, some Catholic and Protestant communities were prevented from holding Christmas prayers and services because of legal obstacles.
Christians in two villages in Dharmasraya and Sijunjung regencies (West Sumatra) were able to celebrate Christmas only after their situation became front-page news in national and international media. Local leaders had refused them permission to hold their celebrations.
For two Protestant communities in West Java, the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church (GKI Yasmin) in Bogor and the Philadelphia Congregation of Batak Protestant Churches (HKBP Filadelfia) in Bekasi Regency, the year 2019 saw another Christmas without the right to use their own place of worship.
For years they have been denied the right to conduct religious activities in their respective houses of worship, due to alleged permit violations. Since 2012, GKI Yasmin and HKBP Filadelfia have been celebrating Christmas Mass in front of the presidential palace.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Christians, local authorities are delaying the implementation of the decision. (Source: AsiaNews)