In Indonesia ‘it is time for Catholics to speak up’

THE MUSLIM MAJORITY IN INDONESIA, though it largely does not support violence against Christians, has continued to pose challenges to the faithful. In January, a state-run high school in Padang, capital of West Sumatra province, came under scrutiny after a video of an argument between a Christian parent and a teacher at the school went viral. The parent took issue with a school rule that required his first-grade daughter to wear a headscarf. The education and culture, religious affairs, and home affairs ministries the next month issued a joint decree banning state schools from interfering in the religious beliefs of students and teachers. In February, three Christians in Aceh province, which has implemented Sharia law since 2001, were flogged in public after being caught drinking alcohol.

Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, executive secretary of the Indonesian bishops’ conference’s Commission for the Laity, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the challenged faced by Christians in Indonesia, particularly Catholics:

What is the biggest challenge faced by Catholics in Indonesia? A strong majoritarianism. It affects many policies. A job promotion, for example: Many Catholic employees still find it hard to get promoted because of their Catholic faith despite their capability. Muslims get priority. The recent appointment of the national police chief, who is a Christian, is an example. The appointment caused tension. Many still thought that a national police chief should be a Muslim.

Another example involves building permits for places of worship: Even when all requirements have been met—including the gathering of signatures of 90 worshippers and signed support from at least 60 local residents, plus approval by the village head, and even the issuance of a building permit by the local government—strong pressure from Muslims can become a problem. A parish which already obtained a building permit for a church often cannot start the construction work because of such a rejection from the majority group. In many cases, the majority group comes from other villages. But their huge number makes Catholics afraid.

How do Catholics who live in areas that implement laws based on Islamic teachings cope? They rebel. They realize that they live among the majority group and are unfairly treated. They would scream if they could. I can say this because a representative from Padang shared with us his feelings at a recent meeting of the bishops’ Commission for the Laity. It is clear enough that there is an uncomfortable feeling. Such laws go against the national ideology of Pancasila, which guarantees freedom of worship for the major religions. Ideally, laws based on Islamic teachings should only apply to Muslims. In practice, however, such laws are applied to all with no exceptions.

Father Siswantoko

In the case involving the high school in Padang, for example, there were only about ten Christian female students. Psychologically, they were not prepared to look different than other female students by not wearing headscarves. There would be no problem if the local government strictly monitored the implementation of the school rule that bans the obligation for all students to wear headscarves. The problem is that many Catholics are reluctant to speak up and choose to stay silent. Catholics have the courage to speak up only at internal meetings. This is a problem. Will we stay silent forever? I do not think so! We must be creative. We must spread our networks and build relations with others. We must participate in dialogue.

What is fundamentally wrong? The Muslim majority dominates others. Also, the local governments fail to play their significant role in protecting all people. It seems that the local governments want to play it safe; they do not want to have conflicts with the majority group. This victimizes the minority. Some people laugh, some people cry. It goes on and on. But there is a ray of hope. The Religious Affairs Ministry, with its slogan “religious moderation,” must tackle the problem. Religious moderation is not about a gathering of religious leaders who work out an agreement. No! The spirit of religious moderation must be instilled in the majority group, which is still fanatic. If religious moderation
can be introduced into society, there will be a ray of hope. It takes time.

Can Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas make the situation better? He has a moderate view. This is a good sign. But relying solely on him is not enough. Is he able to enliven the spirit of religious moderation in the religious affairs offices in all parts of the country? We will see results once all his staff put the spirit of tolerance into practice. Meanwhile, Catholics must be shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Catholics are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Catholics must not stay silent as they cannot yet live in peace. Catholics must fight for a healthy society. It is time for Catholics to speak up.

Roselina Karel