Meet the Muslims Who Keep Christmas Safe in Indonesia
christmas

Meet the Muslims Who Keep Christmas Safe in Indonesia

“What does it say about us Muslims if we disrupt people practicing their own religion? In the end, it all comes down to the individual. Faith is a private matter."
December 25, 2016, 12:00am

Muhammad Wasroni is used to hearing the jokes. The man, who is better known as Bang Roni, stands guard outside his neighborhood church every Christmas as a member of Barisan Ansor Serbaguna (Banser)—a security organization associated with Indonesia's largest Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

It's earned him the scorn of hardline Islamists in this Muslim-majority nation, but Bang Roni told me that he was unfazed by the controversy.

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"The radicals, especially on social media, say we're priests' bodyguards," he said. "Banser is often the target of mockery. I've grown thick skin. Thankfully, I've never had to face such conflicts in the field."

Bang Roni stands near his food cart in Tebet, South Jakarta.

It's been a rough Christmas for Indonesian Christians this year. Hardline Islamists, emboldened after several large-scale protests in the Indonesian capital, spent the holiday season trying to shut down Christmas services and remove Christmas decorations from malls in Surabaya, Yogyakarta, and Bandung. Islamist groups were sweeping malls in Surabaya, where a video of a crowd of people trying to tear down a Christmas tree quickly made rounds on social media.

The sweeps briefly received the support of the police after the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) issued a fatwa barring Muslims from wearing Santa hats. The country's top cop had to go on the record and remind Indonesian police that fatwas aren't laws.

But as Islamic fundamentalists argue over whether or not it's OK for Muslims to participate in Christmas celebrations, Bang Roni is happy to spend Christmas Day at church, standing guard as part of a security force that is expected to total in the thousands this year. He believes that working to maintain religious harmony in Indonesia is just part of his duty as a Muslim.

"My entire family is in NU, but Banser is my calling," he said. "I have no problem helping secure Christmas mass. I see it as a way to make new friends, new brothers. This is ibadah. It's not a job, we don't receive a monthly salary for this."

Three years ago, Bang Roni stood guard with 60 other Banser members for his first Christmas watch. The Banser members joined forced with the police and military to ensure that Gereja Protestan Indonesia Bagian Barat (GPIB) Jemaat Bukit Maria, in Tebet, South Jakarta, remained safe for the entire service. This year, the numbers, citywide, have swelled to more than 2,000, Bang Roni explained. "The churches usually ask Banser to help secure mass," he said.

The church told me that Banser's efforts didn't go unnoticed by the GPIB Jemaat Bukit Moria congregation. "We are very grateful, of course," said Mangindaan, an official with the church. I asked her how the church felt about receiving help from a Muslim organization like Banser. "Help is help," Mangindaan said, "regardless of the religion of the people who give it."

Recorded instances of religious intolerance are down this year, but it doesn't feel like it on the streets. The Jakarta-based think tank the Setara Institute recorded 182 violations of religious freedom this year—down from 236 incidents in 2015. But the institute warned that Christmas celebrations, combined with the heated rhetoric surrounding Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's ongoing blasphemy trial could cause acts of intolerance to spike this holiday season.

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, anti-terrorism police killed three suspected terrorists involved in a plot to detonate a suicide bomb in Jakarta this Christmas. Sixteen years ago, terrorists successfully carried out a Christmas Eve plot, planting bombs in eight cities in a coordinated attack that left 18 dead.

Bang Roni said that Indonesians should spend more energy focusing on harmony and pluralism and less on the differences that are used to divide the nation.

"What does it say about us Muslims if we disrupt people practicing their own religion?" he said. "In the end, it all comes down to the individual. Faith is a private matter."