On Thursday President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is scheduled to attend an annual Christmas celebration. His attendance ( or failure ) to attend what is usually a mundane ceremonial function, will be a landmark in the ongoing project of nationhood, apart from a test of his leadership.
The Indonesian Ulema Council ( MUI ) renewed on Sunday an edict forbidding Muslims from expressing Christmas greetings. Its deputy, Ma’ruf Amin, said this meant a Muslim “should not attend the ritual”; therefore Yudhoyono, a Muslim, should not attend the celebration as it would contain a Christian religious element.
Alternately, conservatives suggest that lower level Christian officials should attend the national function in place of the President.
But it is our position that Yudhoyono must attend the national Christmas celebration. Yudhoyono, elected directly by most voters twice in a row, needs to show a nation of more than 230 million people that all citizens are equal regardless of their background, in a country that has never been declared an Islamic nation.
His presence would affirm the agreement of the founding fathers in 1945 that Indonesia would embrace citizens of diverse backgrounds, the roots of this being included in the 1928 Youth Congress that spoke of a pledge for one nation, despite its differences. However, Yudhoyono has shown signs of bowing to Muslim groups claiming a monopoly over Islamic interpretation, just as the likes of those currently controlling the MUI.
A clear indication is his blatant absence to act in favor of the persecuted Ahmadiyah and Shia minorities — many of them displaced and living in shelters. On Christmas Day, a few congregations held mass in front of the Presidential Palace — another clear sign of Yudhoyono’s refusal to intervene in the decisions of local administrations that have constrained congregations’ freedom to worship.
It remains unclear where this nation is heading. Experts talk of a secular democracy that can accomodate religion formally, even though Islamic politicians have failed to insert the state’s recognition of sharia in the amended Constitution.
Regardless of the solution, the religious freedoms of all citizens must be protected but currently the opposite is
Yudhoyono could perhaps learn something from local authorities. In Jakarta, Deputy Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama opened his house to welcome well wishers. Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo visited the Jakarta Cathedral and Immanuel Church on Christmas Eve.
And in Yogyakarta, interfaith groups including representatives of the Yogyakarta Palace visited Protestants and Catholics to wish them a merry Christmas at three churches in the area.
Whether Muslims are sinning in expressing Christmas greetings to their brethren is a source of genuine anxiety for some of them.
But many others, including this newspaper, are more worried about whether as a nation we can sustain this long held mutual respect and solidarity and therefore, whether we can sustain the nation itself if rigid barriers are set up among different groups.
The attendance of our President at the national Christmas gathering would help to affirm, if only in a ceremonial manner, the foundation of this nation, that Indonesia is truly the home of all Indonesians, regardless of their faith.