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Jakarta Post

Christians keep low profile in Aceh

  • Hotli Simanjuntak

    The Jakarta Post

Banda Aceh   /   Fri, December 23, 2016   /  07:39 am
Christians keep low profile in Aceh Peaceful celebration: Children from the Christian community, which is a minority group in the Muslim-majority province of Aceh, celebrate Christmas at a meeting hall owned by the Hati Kudus Catholic Church in Banda Aceh. (JP/Hotli Simanjuntak)

“I yearn to celebrate Christmas in my hometown,” said Nia Nainggolan, a native of Medan, North Sumatra, who resides in Aceh.

She said she could not make the trip to her hometown to celebrate Christmas with her family in North Sumatra this year, as her financial situation and job obligations forced her to stay in Aceh.

“The [Christmas] atmosphere here in Aceh is different from that in my hometown,” she said.

North Sumatra and Aceh are neighboring provinces but of contrasting religious composition.

A warm Christmas celebration has become a rare occasion in Aceh, a predominantly Muslim province and the only region in Indonesia that upholds sharia law.

(Read also: 2,500 flee to North Sumatra after church burning in Aceh Singkil)

North Sumatra, which shares Aceh’s southern border, is one of the provinces with the most Christians in the country, even though a majority of 65 percent of its population are Muslims.

“In my hometown, the Christmas atmosphere could be felt as early as the first days of December as people began to decorate shopping malls, government offices and even housing areas with Christmas decoration,” Nia said.

In Aceh, on the other hand, there were no Christmas decorations in public places, let alone government offices, she added.

The Christian minority in Aceh, most of whom are not native Acehnese, may celebrate Christmas with a little bit of anxiety following a series of major events across Indonesia that some say reflect growing intolerance.

Christians in the country’s westernmost province were trying not to attract too much attention, Nia said.

“Although the celebration here is definitely not as festive as in my hometown, we are grateful that we are still able to celebrate Christmas in peaceful conditions,” Nia said.

Longtime Aceh resident Irfan Edison Sinaga said acts of intolerance in other parts of Indonesia, with hard-line Muslim groups carrying out vigilante raids on malls displaying Christmas paraphernalia, were starting to bother him.

(Read also: Jakarta Cathedral beefs up security for Christmas)

Those acts reminded him of the changing conditions in Aceh. In recent years, he said, religious tolerance toward non-Muslims was gradually diminishing in Aceh.

“I still remember that in pre-tsunami Aceh, we could experience the Christmas atmosphere with Christmas paraphernalia decorating shopping centers in Banda Aceh’s Chinatown district,” Irfan said.

He recalled that local Acehnese used to be very warm and receptive toward Christmas celebrations. At that time, nobody complained about Christmas paraphernalia being displayed in malls or residential areas.

“Things have been changing in the last three years and I believe that the change is very much the result of outside influence,” he said.

A recent edict by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) banning Muslims from wearing other religious paraphernalia had widened the gap between the province’s Muslims and its minority groups, he complained.

Nearly all shops and offices had received warnings from intolerant groups not to display Christmas paraphernalia on their premises.

“We genuinely want to share the joy of this celebration with our Muslim neighbors, but apparently that will be a very difficult thing to do,” Irfan said.

Despite the rising tide of religious intolerance and concerns over the security situation, the local Christian community is still thankful for the fact that they can celebrate the birth of the Redeemer.

“What we have here is still better than not being able to celebrate it at all. Even if conditions made it impossible, we would still celebrate Christmas inside our hearts,” he said.

Aceh’s capital Banda Aceh has three Protestant churches and one Catholic church. There also two Hindu and two Buddhist temples.

Sharia law was officially implemented in 2002 under the administration of Governor Abdullah Puteh. At that time, Indonesia was led by president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, a prominent Muslim figure known for his moderate stance.

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