Jakarta – This Christmas season has brought especially good news to the country's Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, because for the first time since COVID-19 cases were discovered in Indonesia in 2020 they will enjoy full freedom to attend Christmas services in person.
This was long-awaited news after the country endured the devastating impacts of the pandemic, including the closure of churches and restrictions on other religious gatherings.
To augment the renewed sense of safety in gatherings, the National Police have promised to protect churchgoers over the holidays, not to mention civil society groups, including Nahdlatul Ulama's (NU) youth wing Ansor, which has traditionally offered to protect places of worship out of a commitment to religious harmony and freedom.
Good news also came from President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who on Wednesday announced a plan to lift all public activity restrictions (PPKM) as the country moves closer to declaring an end to the pandemic. The government, however, will only take this major step with the approval of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Christmas, at its core, is a celebration of good news. As the Biblical account goes, an angel told terrified shepherds in Bethlehem that a woman named Mary had given birth to a child named Jesus, the promised savior.
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people," said the angel.
The line "do not be afraid" appears some 365 times in the Bible and in at least one instance is followed by God's assurances that "I am with you always, even to the end of the age". For Christians in Indonesia, these two lines may provide comfort and courage as they face the challenges of observing their religion as a minority group.
And courage will be needed. Some local governments in Banten are seeking to deny Christian residents their constitutional right to worship.
Lebak Regent Iti Octavia Jayabaya said Christians would not be allowed to celebrate Christmas in Maja district because they did not have a government-recognized church building there. The local government had never issued the permit the Christian community there was seeking to build a church.
A similar incident recently took place in the province's industrial city of Cilegon. Mayor Helldy Agustian signed a declaration with several Islamic organizations and clerics vowing not to permit the construction of places of worship for non-Muslims in the steel-producing city. That means the more than 6,700 non-Muslims in the city will have to cross the border to exercise their right to worship.
Amid the many complexities of Indonesia's constitutional democracy, the famous remarks of the country's first Catholic bishop, Albertus Soegijapranata, are worth noting – that members of his denomination were both "100 percent Catholic and 100 percent Indonesian".
Religious intolerance may continue to impede Indonesia, but Christmas will remain, for a number of citizens, a day to express gratitude for God's kindness and optimism for the future.