12/23/2019, 13.41
INDONESIA
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Christians banned from celebrating Christmas in two Muslim-majority West Sumatra villages

by Mathias Hariyadi

Police in Kampung Baru warned Catholics against holding services, urging them to attend a church 120 kilometres away. Some 210 Protestant and Catholic families in Sungai Tambang have also been prevented from practising their faith.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Christians in Sungai Tambang and Jorong Kampung Baru will not be able to celebrate Christmas. The first village is located in Sijunjung Regency; the second in Dharmasraya Regency, both of which are in the Muslim-majority province of West Sumatra.

Local authorities have banned Christmas celebrations from taking place at home rather than in a recognised place of worship. According to local media, the ban has been in place for many years and is backed by village leaders and local administrations.

Last Wednesday, police told the Catholic community in Kampung Baru not to hold services and go instead to a church in Sawahlunto, said Trisila Lubis, a local Catholic leader. The police warning came after village leaders issued a letter earlier this month banning the 16 or so local Catholic families from celebrating Christmas.

If Christian residents accepted the idea, the police promised to transport worshippers to St Barbara Church in Sawahlunto, about 120 kilometres from the village, Trisila explained. However, as the community representative, she turned down the offer because it does not settle the legal battle by local Christians over their right to religious freedom.

The 56-year-old woman said that such discrimination had been going on in the village for years, reaching a peak in 2017 when a similar letter banning Christmas celebrations was issued on 22 December.

Not only were they barred from celebrating Christmas, they were also told not to conduct Sunday Mass anymore at a resident’s house. Instead, the congregation was told to pray individually in their own homes.

The Catholic leader explained that her community, made up of people who moved to Dharmasraya from various parts of the country to work on palm plantations, has been fighting for years to obtain permission to build a church.

Although Indonesia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for every citizen, a 2006 joint ministerial decree, which regulates places of worship, has made it difficult for religious minority groups to build their own places of worship.

For their part, local authorities have rejected accusations of denying religious freedom. A spokesman for the local government, Budi Waluyo, said that an "agreement" was reached last Wednesday between the various religious communities in the area, the small Christian community in Jorong Kampung Baru and Muslims in Nagari Sikabau.

“Christmas celebrations must take place in a legal place of worship, not in homes,” Waluyo insisted.

Some 210 Christian families, both Protestant and Catholic, find themselves in a similar situation in Sungai Tambang, where they are not allowed to worship. Local police have often questioned the legal status of non-permanent houses of worship used as churches.

A meeting was held on 16 December to address the issue, but the authorities did not take any action. Still, Sijunjung District Chief Yuswir Arifin said that "an agreement has been reached,” claiming that no ban was imposed on Christmas celebrations.

A human rights organisation, PUSAKA (Centre for Inter-Community Studies) has reported that discrimination against minority religious groups is widespread in West Sumatra.

According to its data, only nine out of 19 cities and regencies have officially recognised churches. PUSAKA director Sudarto reported at least eight incidents of interreligious conflict in recent times in West Sumatra.

Muhammad Taufik from the local Islamic State University in Pandang has described restrictions on Christmas celebrations as a form of intimidation by the majority against the minority.

"The absence of the State,” he lamented, “has led to the poor defence of fundamental human rights, such as adopting a religious belief and publicly expressing one's faith".

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