Jakarta. Dharmasraya, a district in West Sumatra, has come into the spotlight in the past few days after news surfaced that one of the villages in the district had banned its Catholic residents from celebrating Christmas.
The incident again sparked religious tension in Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population that had just recovered from a highly divisive and religiously charged presidential election in April.
Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian moved quickly to put an end to the controversy, sending a letter to the Dharmasraya district head ordering him to lift the ban.
"I have told the district head and the regional police chief to make sure religious tolerance is followed in the region," Tito said in Jakarta on Monday.
"It will require a cross-sectoral cooperation between the Home Affairs Ministry, the National Police and the Indonesian Military,” he said.
On Dec. 21, Catholics in Jorong Kampung Baru in Sikabau, a village in Pulau Punjung, Dharmasraya, were told to follow an agreement made by local elders – without consulting them – to refrain from celebrating Christmas.
The agreement was written down in a letter and signed by the Sikabau village head, the heads of the local tribes, village elders and youth representatives.
The letter stated that Catholics should hold their Christmas celebrations in the neighboring town of Sawahlunto, where the nearest church is located. They are allowed to celebrate Christmas in their own home as long as they don't invite anyone else.
Sudarto, the manager of cross-community study center Pusaka Foundation, who is advocating on the issue, said the Catholics in Jorong Kampung Baru have been worshipping in their own homes since the church in Sawahlunto is too far away.
They had asked for a permission from the Sikabau village administration hold a Christmas party in 2017 and 2018 but their request was denied both times. This means the village's Catholic residents had been unable to celebrate Christmas in the past two years.
On Dec. 8, local Catholic representative Maradu Lubis asked for another permission from the village administration to hold a Christmas communion in one of the residents' houses but the request was again rejected on the basis of the previous ban in 2017.
Dharmasraya district government's spokesman Budi Waluyo said on Friday the office has never issued any Christmas ban but is merely respecting the existing arrangement in the village.
"The Dharmasraya district office keeps saying it has never banned us from making Christmas celebrations in Dharmasraya. Meanwhile, our right to worship on Christmas Day remains ignored," Sudarto said on Saturday, as reported by Berita Satu.
The 22 Catholic families in Dharmasraya will be forced to make the 135-kilometer trip to the church in Sawahlunto – the same distance from Jakarta to Bandung – to celebrate Christmas.
Sudarto said the district office would provide transportation for Christians to travel to Sawahlunto. But he still regrets the fact it still has a ban in place for Christmas celebrations.
Pusaka Foundation said the district authorities have not shown any intention to fulfill the rights of its Catholic residents.
"The Dharmasraya district office has not shown any intention to meet its obligation as a policymaker to respect, protect and provide the freedom to practice religion individually or in groups," Pusaka Foundation said in a statement received by the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.
Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud M.D. said every Indonesian is afforded the right to practice his or her religion.
"We're trying to solve [the problem]. We don't want any conflict," Mahfud said in Jakarta on Sunday, as reported by CNN Indonesia.
Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi said Christmas celebrations had been banned in the village because the elders thought Catholics should go to the church in Sawahlunto on Christmas Day.
"I haven't looked into the original agreement. But their explanation [to me] was that there was already an agreement and that it had been like this for a long time. There are no churches in the district except for the one in Sawahlunto," Fachrul said in Jakarta on Saturday, as reported by CNN Indonesia.
National Police spokesman Asep Adi Saputra said on Thursday the Dharmasraya district office had told the police it had never issued a blanket Christmas ban.
"They had asked, however, that Christmas group celebrations should be held in a church," Asep told Antara.
Pusaka Foundation said the statements from the religious affairs minister and the National Police spokesman regarding the agreement to hold Chrismas group celebrations in a church were not true.
It said there had been no deal between the Catholics and the other villagers. Instead, the decision to ban Christmas celebrations in Sikabau was made in an internal meeting between the village elders without involving the Catholic residents.