At the St. Servatius Catholic church, an ancient bell begins chiming a few minutes after a solemn call to prayer. The prayer came from a mosque near the Fisabilillah Islamic boarding school, merely 100 meters away. At a distance, a congregation gathers peacefully at the Pasundan Protestant church.
These houses of worship are located in Kampung Sawah in Bekasi, east of Jakarta, where people of different ethnic backgrounds and faiths live in peace. Local wisdom reigns and people believe religious tolerance is of the utmost importance.
The area is known as a “golden triangle” of Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. In the village, some Betawi people, often known to be Muslims, are actually Catholic or Protestant.
Differences in faith don’t matter here. Together, the people preserve the local culture. They wear the same sarongs and stick to the local customs. They share the same joys of Christmas or Idul Fitri.
Religious tolerance has existed in Indonesia for a long time, as shown in research by the Religious Affairs Ministry and the University of Indonesia’s anthropology department in 1996 and 1998. In fact, religious tolerance has stronger roots here than in Europe, according to Abdul Aziz, a sociology expert trained at Monash University in Melbourne.
Kampung Sawah stands as an example. The village’s first settlers were Muslim, but in the 1880s Christianity spread there from Central and East Java. In 1886, a Dutch priest baptized the first 18 Betawi people.
The Christians in Kampung Sawah would name people after their Betawi familiar names, such as Saiman, Napiun or Kadiman. However, it is also common for people to have names that combine their baptized names and their original Betawi names, such as Mathius Saiman. It is also common for people of different faiths to marry, creating relationships that preserve religious harmony.
A caretaker at the Fisabilillah Islamic boarding school, Rahmadin Afif, has cousins who became leaders of the Protestant and Catholic communities.
“When it is Idul Fitri, you cannot differentiate between who is Muslim or Christian,” he said. “During the Ramadan fasting season, the Christians are not disturbed by wake-up calls because the mosque loudspeakers are not turned on loud.”
He added that Christians are not disturbed when they hold mass at their churches.
“In Kampung Sawah, the religious harmony was created long ago, and it is immune to those who oppose multiculturalism or unity in diversity,” he said. “For hundred of years [it has been here]. The original settlers in the area sowed seeds of religious harmony and it is here to stay forever.”
People in Kampung Sawah believe the local leaders set a good example, attributing the area’s religious harmony to their strong communication skills. If conflicts erupt in other areas, it is often because the leaders there were unable to communicate properly with the people.
Another example of religious harmony can be found in Depok district, which has six Catholic churches and 26 Protestant churches for its 1.6 million residents.
“Everything is communicated properly in Depok; even the slightest sign of social upheaval is handled with the utmost wisdom,” said social activist Jusuf Suroso, adding that in many places in Central Java, such as Muntilan subdistrict, religious harmony also reigns.
But Jusuf acknowledged that intolerance was still a problem in many places, especially where self-interest dominates the public discourse. He blamed the problem in part on a joint ministerial decree that governs houses of worship.
“Religious freedom should not be regulated,” he said. “It’s absurd to require people to obtain permits so they can set up houses of worship.
“I’m convinced that the cathedral next to the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta doesn’t have a permit. It’s crazy to require one.
“Besides, the Supreme Court has annulled any ruling that require permits for the establishment of churches.”
Yanto Soegiarto is the managing editor of Globe Asia, a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe.