Authority, Community & Identity article

Religious Festivals, Community Engagement and Peaceful Co-Existence

Community engagement is an important mechanism to maintain peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic and multicultural country like Indonesia. It is comprised of the active involvement by diverse members of a given society in mutually beneficial interactions. In Lombok, an island in the eastern part of the country and home to many ethnicities and religions, one way to generate community engagement is through public religious observances and cultural festivals. They can serve as a means for social integration, peace, and harmony, as evidenced in various events.

For example, people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations participated in the 26th national Qur’anic reading festival in Mataram last summer. While the Hindu-Balinese deployed pecalang (civil guards) to safeguard the festival parade, Catholic students joined the choir team and sung the festival anthem in the opening ceremony. In another festival featured in the top image, called perang topat  (a theatrical war using rice cake) in the area of Pura Lingsar, west Lombok, Hindus and Muslims gather, interact, and compete in religious and musical performances. On Christmas morning members of Radio Antar Penduduk Indonesia/RAPI civil force assisted the police to ensure the safety of Christians during their rituals. While this is a secular civil association with no affiliation to any one religion or ethnic group, a mix of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and others make up its membership. Furthermore, the Ansor of Mataram Branch, the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama/NU (the largest Islamic organization in the country), has successfully sponsored multiple interreligious gatherings in remembrance of a pluralist figure, the late fourth Indonesian president and NU former leader Abdurrahman Wahid. It has also supported the congregation of Gereja Yesus Kristus Tuhan (GYKT church) in its so-far unsuccessful efforts to obtain a permit to establish a new church.

From the left: researcher, policewoman, and RAPI members in the front of the main gate of Gereja Protestan Indonesia Barat (GBIP church) in Mataram on Christmas morning, 2016.

Cultural festivals promote community engagement along cultural and ethno-religious lines, lessening segregation through what may be extended contact in preparation for the event and establishing relationships and communication between groups. In order for public engagement to have greater positive impacts and reach, it needs to be “scaled up”, to borrow Robert Hefner’s word, by involving broader community participation. Scaling up public engagement requires integrating diverse groups into more religious and cultural festivals and other regular community programs. According to a senior Christian priest, there has been no systematic grass-roots peacemaking effort for the purpose of mediating Muslim-Christian tensions in Lombok since the 2000 outbreak of violence. Instead, what has continued is inter-group consolidation amongst elite and top figures. The Indonesian inter-religious harmony forum (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama/FKUB, a state body) holds regular meetings with state officials, the intelligence service, the police, community leaders, as well as other secular and religious authorities about the religious social dynamic, security, and intolerance. Those assembled seek to formulate the best mechanism to curb intolerance or violent conflict. For example, within a week of the destruction of a mosque in Tolikara, Papua, in June of 2015, the provincial FKUB board quickly responded to the incident by inviting all community and religious leaders to unite. This is an important mechanism, but it only addresses tensions at a certain level of society.

What has not been sufficiently developed are formal or informal encounters at the grassroots level which involve all community members regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations. Religious cultural events or festivals help resolve this problem because almost everyone is welcome to participate and engage. Through such festivals, people interact and engage intensively, establishing channels of communication and relationships. The lack of positive exposure to diverse people is a major concern for efforts to eradicate intolerance. The failure, or at least the postponement, of the approval for the GYKT church noted above underscores the effects of insufficient community engagement with this minority Christian community. Recently, the FKUB of Mataram city issued a recommendation to the Mataram city government advising the GYKT congregation be permitted to build a church. However, the recommendation is now at odds with the opposition of the majority of the local community. While procedural or administrative steps have been fulfilled, intolerance remains a roadblock. The problem arises mainly because none of the GYTK congregation lives in the area where the church will be built. More importantly, the congregation and the community hardly communicate or engage in public events together. This leads one to ask whether a new religious space can be built in a community where no congregational members live.

In Indonesia, it is legally nearly impossible to erect a new place of worship that does not correspond to the majority religion in a given community. The Minister of Religious Affairs and Minister of Home Affairs Joint Decree No. 8 and 9/2006 require at least 60 local residents’ approval and 90 available religious adherents before a place of worship can be built. While in practice adherents to the majority religions in Indonesia often do not fulfill the requirement nor do they have serious difficulties in meeting it, religious minorities have often found it to be a major obstacle. They believe that the decree discriminates against them. However, the examples from Lombok suggest that the issue is not solely a legal one. Rather, it is also a cultural issue. The solution to this problem is often contingent upon the management of communication and engagement with the local community where the new place of worship will be constructed.

A Catholic bishop baptizes children on Christmas at St Maria Immaculata Church, Mataram, one the most damaged churches in the 17th of January, 2000 riot

This can be seen in the cases of a church for the Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia community (GKII) and a Christian college called Sekolah Tinggi Theologia Injili Indonesia (STTII). The GKII church does not yet have an official permit from the local government in Mataram. The GKII contends that it has completed requirements to obtain a permit that will give it the status of a permanent “legal” church, but it has not yet been approved. The priest of the church, however, does not consider this as important as the proper functioning of the church and regular services for its members. Every year, his church celebrates Christmas openly and invites local community leaders and sub-district heads. To gain community support, the church is involved in community social work, such as giving to charity and caring for the environment. A similar approach is taken by STTII. Although this college holds an official permit, it continues to cooperate with non-Christian locals (most of whom are Muslim) and comply with their social conventions, such as participating in community-based security at night (ronda), celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (mawled), and attending burial ceremonies whenever a neighbor passes away. As a result of this engagement, the college principal suggests, non-Christian neighbors have never considered the presence of the college a threat. Indeed, the ability to build and maintain houses of worship in these cases may be predicated upon the positive esteem of their non-Christian neighbors.

The social and cultural practices which these two Christian institutions have adopted in their respective communities are by no means obligatory. Rather, the institutions are seeking the most viable way to negotiate a strict legal boundary or cultural barrier. The goal is to establish good communication and enhance social engagement. These are key parts of accelerating social integration. Further efforts by the parties concerned, including the state agencies, religious authorities, community leaders and non-government organizations, must move beyond elite dialogue to focus on strengthening and enhancing community engagement.


Photo Credit: Mohamad Abdun Nasir

Mohamad Abdun Nasir
Mohamad Abdun Nasir is a lecturer at the Department of Islamic Law and Economics at the Graduate School of the State Islamic Institute (IAIN) Mataram. He received a Fulbright Presidential Scholarship and Emory Laney Graduate School Scholarship for his doctoral degree at Emory University, where he earned his PhD in Islamic studies in 2013. His recent publications have appeared in the Asian Journal of Social Science and Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

2 thoughts on “Religious Festivals, Community Engagement and Peaceful Co-Existence

  1. This is a good entrance gate to create a real peace in Lombok. Mutual respects among religious people in the local area will ensure churches in Lombok get legal permit from the government. Some religious communities in the local area enjoyed their freedom in worship activities as you showed at pictures. Unfortunately, some of them, not by picture, are still struggling to find a legal permit from government and non legal permits from their neighbors who area majority and different in faith. Indeed, some churches in the capital city and in west part of Lombok have permitted legally by government, however no one church in east Lombok, central Lombok and north Lombok have established church building and also it permit. Phenomenal issue are around the intimidation and sometimes oppression acts from the majority people group to the minority. Sadly, too often government powerless in resolve these problem. I hope and pray that one day minority people groups in West Nusa Tenggara such as Christians, Hindus, Buddhas and Confucians will enjoy their freedom in worshiping activities and build their churches or temples without any worry and threats from the majority people group.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. There are more tensions or disputes over a place of worship of the minority, especially Christians in Lombok, than what I described in this short essay. However, due to a limited space, I did not mention all these cases here. Only GYKT case is brought up here. However, in my research report, I will mention and discuss more cases of church disputes and analyze the roots of the dispute and the solution offered by the state, which seemed to be unsatisfaction to the minority. What I wanted to describe in this blog essay is one example of conflict and the best solution that helps resolve it.

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