Jambi, Indonesia – In stark contrast to the pervading sense of gleeful anticipation of Christmas on Wednesday (Dec 25) in many parts of the country, Christians in Indonesia's Jambi city still struggle to find joy on the eve of the holy day since the authorities sealed a number of local churches in the city.
Several Christians in the region were aghast when they were welcomed by a notice plastered on the closed front doors of the Assemblies of God Church (GSJA) informing them the church was sealed on Dec 24, instead of the customary Christmas prayers and services.
The notice was not new, as it was signed by local public order agency (Satpol PP) investigator Said Faizal on Sept 27 of last year.
The GSJA is among three churches in the Simpang Rimbo area in Jambi, alongside neighbouring Huria Kristen Indonesia (HKI) and Methodist Kanaan Indonesia (MKI), that were closed down by the Jambi city administration following protests by some residents last year, citing the lack of building permits.
"This is the second Christmas celebration to feel depressing for us," said GSJA pastor Jonathan Klaise on Tuesday.
It was the second time that around 200 GSJA congregants had to make do by celebrating Christmas outside their church since they were forced to close their house of worship last year. Members of the church have since set up a modest space nearby where they can continue church activities.
"This second Christmas (celebration) teaches us patience, to bow down to prevent any conflict from escalating further," Mr Jonathan said as he visibly held back tears.
He said he had formally requested the Kotabaru Police to allow members of the church to congregate for a service on Tuesday at 6pm and on Wednesday at 8am.
Church members had so far been allowed to carry on with their activities in the designated area spanning 1,200sq m, he said. "It's a difficult situation. We have no other choice but to cope with it," Mr Jonathan said.
GSJA congregants had pitched in to fast-track the construction of a new church in Pinang Merah, around 2km away from the original church, he said.
He called on the local administration to grant them the proper building permit to prevent the new church from meeting the unfortunate fate of being closed down.
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.
The decree requires a congregation to get 90 signatures from their members and another 60 from local residents before building a house of worship.
Meanwhile, members of MKI church could be seen preparing for Christmas in a makeshift space outside their sealed church – some were busy cooking and decorating the place, while others including church choir members were rehearsing for Mass.
"Around 600 church members will gather tonight and tomorrow morning," MKI pastor O. Tampubolon said, adding that he hoped for a peaceful Christmas celebration.
Scores of local residents stormed the church in November when they caught wind of a rumour that the local administration would re-open the building.
"I don't know for how much longer the situation will persist. We can only hope that we will soon be able to pray in our church," Mr Tampubolon said.
Around 750 military personnel will assist local police in ensuring security and safety during Christmas celebrations across the region.
The situation in Jambi offers a portrait of intolerance that is still alive and well in a number of regions throughout the religiously diverse country.
Christians in Kampung Baru village in Dharmasraya regency in the predominantly Muslim province of West Sumatra were told that nigari (village) leaders had prohibited them from holding Christmas services.
Police officers informed the Christian community in the village on Wednesday not to hold services but rather to go to a church in neighboring Sawahlunto regency, said Ms Trisila Lubis, a Catholic who lives in Kampung Baru.
The police's suggestion was apparently made after leaders in the village issued a letter earlier this month banning the community of around 16 families from celebrating Christmas in the neighbourhood.
Amid the streak of intolerance, Religious Minister Fachrul Razi released on Tuesday an official video calling on the public to respect differing beliefs.
"Allowing others of different beliefs to pray solemnly has long been ingrained in Indonesian culture," Mr Fachrul said. "Mutual respect and tolerance are key to peace among religious groups in the country."
– The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network