Ade Mardiyati – Two years after they met at a university event outside Jakarta, Indah Welasasih and Muhamad Yoesoef decided to get married. Despite an age gap of 16 years, the Indonesian couple felt they had a deep connection and they were comfortable with one another.
They planned to tie the knot in September 2008, but there was a big problem: Indah comes from a devout Christian family, while Muhamad was a Muslim. Indah remembers her mother warning her of dire consequences as the relationship became more serious.
"My mother said: 'I don't care even if I have to go to jail if you ever convert to his religion'," she says of her now deceased mother. "I never asked her what she really meant by that but I presumed for someone to go to jail they would have to commit a crime."
Interfaith marriage is permitted in Indonesia but in many cases is discouraged, both culturally and administratively. Couples have to contend with pressure from their families, with the refusal of most religious leaders or celebrants to conduct the marriage ceremony, and problematic bureaucratic requirements have also to be dealt with.
Muhamad thinks the government should refrain from interfering too much in matters of marriage. "They can of course register an event of marriage for the sake of data needed for a census, for example, but to regulate marriage rigidly should not be part of it," he says.
One of the articles in Indonesia's 1974 Marriage Law states that wedlock is valid "provided it is conducted according to the laws of religion and beliefs of both sides". Conservative religious leaders or celebrants use this article to insist interfaith marriage is invalid, because it's not in accordance with their holy books.
"The MUI [Indonesian Islamic Council] even issued a fatwa against interfaith marriage, saying that it is haram [forbidden]," says Siti Musdah Mulia, director of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), a Jakarta-based religious freedom advocacy group.
"There is no solution from the government despite the increasing number of interfaith marriages," she says. "Indonesia is a diverse country where people of different cultures and religious backgrounds live side by side in society. They meet and interact, so why can't they fall in love? For me, this is ironic."
A lecturer and the founder of the Human Rights Studies Centre at the University of Indonesia's faculty of law, Harkristuti Harkrisnowo says the Marriage Law article "is an indirect way of the government saying that interfaith marriage is forbidden".
To get round this legal and administrative obstacle, interfaith couples resort to various strategies. "[These ways] are not illegal, but actually evasions of the law," says Harkistruti.
One of the most common methods entails one of the partners pretending to convert to the other's religion, she adds.
"For example, they proclaim the shahada," the Islamic creed: There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet, "and therefore become a Muslim. But do they really mean it?"
There are two marriage institutions in Indonesia. Muslim Indonesian couples go to the Religious Affairs Office (KUA) to get wed, while the Civil Registry Office looks after non-Muslim Indonesians.
In 2009, Eva Dewi "converted" to Islam to marry her then boyfriend, Evan Sharly. Against her mother's wishes, Eva, who grew up Christian, "proclaimed the shahada and became a Muslim on paper", the 42-year-old make-up artist says.
"I just thought it was the least complicated way. But deep down inside, I was not and am still not [a Muslim]. I still go to church sometimes."
Only friends attended their wedding reception, Eva says. "My husband's family disapproved as well. Not only a Christian, I was also a divorcee with one child at the time." The mother of three says she had her religion changed from Christian to Islam on a new national identity card so she could get married at the KUA.
Couples of mixed faith often choose to marry overseas, Harkristuti says. Popular places for such weddings include Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore.
"We chose Singapore, knowing that getting married in Indonesia was not an option," says 30-year-old Ni Luh Putu Ayumi Yuttari Putri, a Balinese Hindu who married a Muslim. "We've always heard about how complicated it would be, so we really couldn't be bothered."
Ayumi's husband, Keoni Indrabayu Marzuki, was born to interfaith parents. "His father is Muslim and his mother is Hindu. Just like us," says the treasury marketing officer, who works at a state-owned bank. "We're fortunate we didn't encounter any problems with our families. We are repeating their history."
She hopes the Indonesian government and religious organisations will eventually treat mixed-faith marriages in the same way as same-faith unions. "We share the same purpose, which is to legalise our union to start our married life," she says. "Why are we treated differently? It's really sad that they make it so hard for us. We have the right to be happy too."
It is not widely known, but the ICRP advocacy group also provides counselling and help for interfaith couples wanting to get married in Indonesia, says its director, Musdah. "As long as their motive is not polygamy or trafficking, we would definitely help them," she says. "We know and have enlightened celebrants to conduct wedding ceremonies."
ICRP deputy director Ahmad Nurcholis is one of Indonesia's few interfaith Muslim marriage celebrants. He says those like him have a deep understanding of Indonesian law and know that interfaith marriage is legally permissible. These celebrants must have courage, he adds. "There may be many Muslim marriage celebrants who share the perspective with us, but they may not be brave enough."
The advocacy organisation has been harshly criticised, mostly by Muslim groups, including the MUI and the Islamic Defenders Front, Musdah explains. "We have been, among other things, protested against, emailed, threatened, and reported to the police," she adds. "It's never really been a problem for us. We are very open about who we are and what we do."
As of February 2020, the ICRP had helped 1,100 interfaith couples get married, Nurcholis says. One of the most recent unions featured a Muslim ceremony in the morning followed by Catholic one later on. "I am proud to be able to assist interfaith couples," Nurcholis says. "A lot of them have been dating for 10 or 15 years but couldn't get married just because they have different religions."
Interfaith couple Indah and Muhamad sought advice and help from a pastor before they got married in a Christian ceremony in a central Jakarta church. "Luckily, the pastor was related to our family," says Muhamad. "He was willing to help us out. He provided a letter that listed me as a sympathiser of the church."
That was enough to enable the couple to be married by the sympathetic pastor. However, worried that his national identity card – stating his religion – would be required by someone from the church, Muhamad "asked a relative to help get me a new one", he says, calling it "authentic-but-fake".
Within about two weeks, Muhamad had a new ID card that listed him as a Christian, but kept his original card stating that he was a Muslim.
"I was aware it wasn't right, but I just didn't know what else to do," the 61-year-old university lecturer says, adding that it was an unnecessary precaution: no one from the church asked him to show his ID card, and now he has converted to Christianity.
The least popular way interfaith couples manage to wed is by asking for a court decision, Harkristuti says. "But the process is usually long," she adds. "I don't think many interfaith couples opt for this choice. I feel sorry [these couples] have to go through such things. It's very complicated."
Harkristuti thinks the discrimination levelled against interfaith couples is unfair, and arguments that Indonesians should marry within their faiths are misguided.
"I personally think the government should give [interfaith couples] the opportunity to marry because we live in a plural society," she says, pointing out the government had no real justification for making marriage difficult for them. "It's not as though things would be easier administratively in the future if they didn't legalise their union."