Christmas Celebrations Banned in Muslim West Sumatra

Christians hold candles during Christmas Eve mass at a church in Carita, Banten province, Indonesia.
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Governments on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have banned Christians from celebrating Christmas in private homes, according to a report Thursday from International Christian Concern (ICC).

This year, authorities have barred Christians from holding worship services and Christmas celebrations in Sungai Tambang, Sijunjung Regency and Jorong Kampung Baru, Dharmasraya Regency in West Sumatra, ICC said.

Officials have justified the banning of Christmas celebrations on the grounds that they were not carried out in places of worship, but rather in private homes.

“They did not get permission from the local government since the Christmas celebration and worship were held at the house of one of the Christians who had been involved. The local government argued that the situation was not conducive,” said Sudarto, director of PUSAKA (Center for Inter-Community Studies).

Christians usually celebrate Christmas and the New Year in a quiet way, he said, because a license to celebrate in a public fashion is never granted.

“It has been going on for a long time, so far they have been quietly worshiping at the home of one of the worshipers, but they have applied for permission several times. Yet the permit to celebrate Christmas was never granted,” he said.

“The house where they performed worship services was once burned down in early 2000 due to resistance from residents,” Sudarto said, which is in violation of Indonesia’s written law that guarantees religious freedom.

This week Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs published its Religious Harmony Index, according to which the province of West Sumatra is in the second to last position, at number 33 of the country’s 34 provinces. Only the province of ACEH was found to be lower.

In response to the report, the provincial governor, Irwan Prayitno, acknowledged that there are local regulations, such as the rules of reading the Koran and wearing of the hijab, but insisted that they are based on “the aspirations of society.”

“The community understands what this means and accepts it as desirable, so I think it does not matter,” he said.

Nearly 90 percent (87.1 percent) of the Sumatran population is Muslim, as is the case of Indonesia at large. A significant minority (10.7 percent) are Christians, while less than 2% are Buddhists and Hindus. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, with nearly 230 million adherents, almost all of whom are Sunnis.

According to the most recent report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in the past year “overall religious freedom conditions in Indonesia trended negative.”

The Indonesian government “continued to enforce several laws and policies that imposed significant obstacles to religious freedom, such as draconian blasphemy laws and an arduous approval process for the construction of new houses of worship,” it stated.

“The national government frequently does not intervene when provincial and local governments enact unconstitutional regulations or policies that exacerbate religious divisions,” it said.

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