Remnants of Ambon’s Religious Harmony

SEPTEMBER 07, 2010

Wahyuni Kamah

The island of Ambon is historically known for its role in the spice trade. More recently, the capital of Maluku is associated with something much darker: religious violence. A fight between a Christian bus driver and some Muslim youths in 1999 quickly spiralled out of control and resulted in hundreds of deaths and the burning down of many mosques and churches before the violence was brought under control in 2002.

While the conflict may now be over, the religious harmony that was once an integral part of daily life in Ambon remains elusive. Clear delineations between Muslim and Christian areas, remnants of the violence, still exist.

For those who wish to catch a glimpse of what life was like prior to the conflict, a visit to the subdistrict of Leiheitu in Central Maluku, where Christian and Muslim houses of worship still stand side-by-side, is in order.

Leihitu lies about 40 kilometers north of Ambon. The picturesque drive from the capital to Leiheitu makes its away along curving roads and through mountainous areas, passing small hamlets, plantations and untouched beaches along the way.

“All this area is mainly populated by Muslims,” said Isaac, who works as a driver. “There were, however, a small number of Christians in Hila, but they no longer live there.”

Hila, a village in Leihitu, offers solid evidence of the former Christian presence in the Church of Hila. The structure is believed to be the oldest Protestant church on the island, constructed by the Portuguese in 1580.

The spot was chosen due to its proximity to the coastline that the Portuguese — and later the Dutch — would find convenient for their ships.

The church’s architecture is modest and simple. Wooden walls and a nipa palm roof enclose an 8-by-18 meter room with a simple altar on a platform. The floor is made of red brick.

Although the church is Protestant, its caretaker is not. Muhammad Nur Rumuela, a Muslim, has looked after the church since 2008 because there was no one else to do the job.

Hila was a predominately Muslim area, and after the outbreak of violence, members of the small Christian community fled. “Before the conflict, the Christians and Muslims used to live in harmony here.

When needed, the Muslims helped the Christians repair or clean the church,” Nur said.

After being destroyed in the violence, the church was rebuilt in 2008. But with no local congregation, it stands empty most days.

“Sometimes some Christians from Ambon or other areas come to perform their rituals in the church. They give advance notice because I need to clean the church first before they use it,” Nur said.

Asked why he felt compelled to take care of the church, he replied: “As a Muslim, it is my obligation to protect the house of worship.”

A few hundred meters from the empty church stands the oldest mosque on Ambon, Masjid Wapaue, located in the village of Kaitetu.

The original name of the mosque was Masjid Wawane, due to its location at the foot of Mount Wawane. The mosque was constructed in 1414 by Perdana Jamilu, who came from Persia to spread Islam.

In 1614, the mosque was moved to Kampung Tehala, six kilometers to the east, at the request of the Dutch. Fifty years later, the Dutch ordered the residents of Tehala and other nearby areas to relocate to the coast, where Kaitetu was founded.

The mosque was abandoned, but according to local folklore, the residents of Keitetu woke up one morning to find that it had been transported to the center of the village overnight.

Like the Hila church, the mosque is simple, measuring about 10-by-10 square meters. The lack of iron nails or bolts makes its construction unique, with everything held in place with wooden pegs.

The walls are made of cement and bamboo, while the roof is made of nipa fronds that are replaced every five years.

Idris, the mosque’s caretaker for the last eight years, pointed out several historical artifacts still in use today, such as a handwritten Koran — believed to be one of the oldest in Indonesia — and several manuscripts that date back centuries.

There are also scales that were used to weigh zakat fitrah (alms in the form of rice or money), and a bedug (large wooden drum), which is struck to mark the call to prayer. “This mosque is still being used for daily prayer and Friday prayers,” Idris said.

It is one of two mosques near the Church of Hila. The other, called Masjid Besar Hila, is situated at an intersection in the village. It is much bigger and is the main house of worship for Muslims in the village.

It is also newer and more modern. Made primarily of wood and topped with a corrugated iron roof, Masjid Besar Hila features intricate carvings on its wooden doors and the interior of its dome, with the inside painted in bright pinks, light greens and calm creams.

The mosque’s serene interior, along with its close proximity to the Church of Hila, is proof of the spiritual tolerance that used to be the order of the day on the island before the violence of 1999.

It will have visitors to Leihetu wondering just how religious harmony was in the Ambon of the past, and how it can be recaptured.