Healing Vows: An Interfaith Love Story
Sylvia Edith can’t help but smile when she tells her personal love story — first, the love she has for her religion and, second, the love she has for her husband.
Sylvia, 59, is a Christian. She met her husband, Maryun Wiryasoekarta, a Muslim, when they were both students at the University of Indonesia in the 1970s. The couple married in 1978 despite family objections and social barriers to their interreligious union and legal barriers.
While it is common in Indonesia — indeed it is mandatory — for one half of an interfaith couple to convert to their partner’s religion, Sylvia said neither she nor her husband ever considered conversion.
Still happily married and now with two adult children, Sylvia recalled how her family dealt with religion, respect and tolerance.
“We were lucky we were able to get married legally in Indonesia, unlike today where couples like us have to get married abroad,” she said.
The couple just squeezed under restrictions under the current marriage law, which states “both parties must hold the same religion, if not, one party must convert to the other’s religion.” In such cases, couples of different religions who wish to maintain their individual faith must go to a third country to get married.
Not long ago, two-faith couples could get help in celebrating their nuptials from groups such as the Paramadina Foundation, established by the late Muslim reformer Nurcholish Madjid. But the foundation stopped facilitating interfaith marriages in 2005 after coming under strong criticism from hard-line Muslim groups.
In one sense, the union of Sylvia and Maryun, and their equally inter-religious children, might be seen as a triumph for Indonesia’s secular constitution and the country’s reputation as a bastion of moderation. Unfortunately, at a time when the erosion of religious tolerance is a subject of increasing concern, the couple is an aberration not an ideal.
Christmas and Ramadan
“Our marriage was not easy,” said Sylvia, “since some of my husband’s family members were strongly opposed to the idea. Luckily, our parents were moderate enough to give us their blessing, which was the most important thing for us to go ahead with our plan.”
Since then, Sylvia has observed both Christianity and Islam and celebrates all of the important holidays for two religions, including Ramadan, Idul Fitri, Christmas and Easter.
Their children were also raised in both faiths, Sylvia said, and when they came to her with religious questions, she tried to answer them honestly but if she couldn’t, she would consult with her husband.
Their first child, a son, now 32, has taken on his father’s faith; their daughter, 26, is a Christian, like her mother.
“We teach our children about tolerance with actions, not words. They see their parents respecting each other in their daily lives,” Sylvia said.
“I think in the old days it was totally OK to have interfaith marriages like ours. But today, people seem to be more close-minded, some of them think their religion is better than others,” she said. “Somehow, nationalism almost means nothing to us as citizens. Religion has become our first identity.”
Sylvia obviously isn’t the only one noticing the rise of religious intolerance — a serious threat for Indonesia, a multicultural country which is home to hundreds of ethnic and language groups across its thousands of islands.
In the past decade, Indonesia has witnessed the rise of hard-line groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, which often takes the law into its own hands to enforce its version of religious purity while the police stand on the sidelines and watch.
In Bogor, the highly-publicized battle over the GKI-Yasmin church has seen parishioners shut of their place of worship by order of the mayor, who has openly defied a Supreme Court ruling in the church’s favor.
Elsewhere, bloody sectarian clashes have claimed hundreds of lives in the past decade.
Last month, a suicide bomber attacked a church in Solo, Central Java. That incident was linked to an earlier suicide bombing of a mosque in Cirebon, West Java; the aim of the bombers seemed to be sowing sectarian strife, police said.
Perhaps the most horrific incident was February’s mob attack on members of the minority Muslim sect Ahmadiyah in Cikeusik, West Java. Three people were clubbed, hacked and stoned to death and a sickening video of the incident was widely circulated on YouTube. Later, a court in Serang sentenced 12 people to between three months and six months in jail for the attack, while one of those attacked was also jailed for inciting violence.
In early September, violence again erupted in Ambon, the Maluku provincial capital, after rumors of a Muslim being attacked by Christians spread by text message, reviving fears of the devastating violence that engulfed Ambon ten years ago.
Change for the Worse
“Indonesian society has undergone a tremendous change. The more fast-paced lifestyle and the uncertainty of the economy often makes individuals feel lonely and isolated,” said Imam Prasodjo, a sociologist from the University of Indonesia. “We never designed our society to have a cross-cutting identity, which would have allowed us to be flexible and inclusive regardless of our differences.”
Communities are easily agitated when it comes to differences because people instinctively identify with their immediate group, Iman said.
“The government and society have to be proactive in making sure that they don’t encourage the people to be close minded,” he said.
According to Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest and lecturer at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, tolerance is becoming a thing of the past. “The ability to accept those who are different, especially those who are in the minority, is fading,” he said. “Hatred for those who are considered ‘deviant’ is getting stronger, although they have been part of [Indonesia] for a long time.”
Franz blames the national leadership. “The government refuses to take on the responsibility of educating society to accept and respect their fellow countrymen even though their differences are highlighted by the Indonesian constitution,” he said.
He added that Indonesia’s history, including three decades of Suharto’s authoritarian rule, is creating problems as the country tries to complete the transition to a democracy. “Anything can stir up intolerance: religion, sects, even local elections,” Franz said.
“What we see today is a political problem. The government’s approach has been partial, when it should have been holistic,” said Yenny Wahid, the head of the Wahid Institute, a Muslim organization that promotes tolerance and was the brainchild of her father, former President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was a beacon of religious pluralism.
“We missed an opportunity to build a national identity but we can still learn how to accept people,” Yenny said. “ People are lost, social injustice creates frustration which leads to intolerance.”
Is there a solution?
Imam, the sociologist, offers a possible answer.
“We should be brave enough to ask ourselves, ‘What have we done wrong?’” he said. “This might be just a simple problem, we just don’t communicate with each other.
“The government should provide public spaces that will encourage people from various backgrounds to come together.”
Imam criticizes the government for developing the country’s physical infrastructure while neglecting social structures. Interactions between people with different backgrounds will lead to more tolerance, Iman said.
“We have public spaces, parks like Taman Suropati that allow different people to interact,” he said. “You can see this in places such as the Senayan area. Different people come to play sports and they mix together fine. Something like this can actually be created.
“The government sometimes misses small opportunities to better integrate people then later it turns into a bigger open conflict,” he said
Luckily, there is still hope and a family like Sylvia Edith’s is proof that fundamental, loving tolerance is possible regardless of how one chooses to explain the mysteries of life through religious beliefs.
“We teach our children to respect all religions,” she said simply. “They all have their good parts.”