Central Java Village Shows That Unity in Diversity Is Possible

The Christmas service at GITJ Tempur on Dec 25, 2013. (JG Photo/Camelia Pasandaran)

The Christmas service at GITJ Tempur on Dec 25, 2013. (JG Photo/Camelia Pasandaran)

Jepara, Central Java. A new report by the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, a nongovernmental organization that conducts human rights and political freedom research, recorded 222 religious freedom violations across 20 Indonesian provinces in 2013, indicating that the country has a long way to go in improving religious harmony.

The NGO recorded some 132 criminal cases, 38 cases of intolerance and four examples of public figures condoning violence.

But a group of people in a hilly part of Central Java’s Jepara district may be on course to change the narrative of religious tolerance in Indonesia.

Near the top of Muria volcano on Dec. 22, at its caldera, churchgoers sang a Christmas carol in Javanese through speakers placed outside their small church in the hamlet of Pekoso, part of Tempur village.

Inside the church, a lady chanted the soulful, pentatonic melody, hitting the high notes with firm clarity. Hundreds of congregants clapped their hands as the performance ended.

Sutoyo, the village chief, locally known as petinggi (the highness), stood before the microphone and said “Shalom,” a greeting which was repeated by the crowd.

After offering a Christmas greeting, Sutoyo, who is a Muslim, reminded the churchgoers to continue maintaining a harmonious relationship and tolerance between the religions in the village.

“Our village is known to the outside world as an example of religious tolerance,” he said. “Hopefully, we can still walk together side by side under the guidance of God.”

More than 300 people attended the Christmas celebration at the Javanese Mennonite Church (GITJ) on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013.

Beside some 50 regular members of the congregation, many attendees came from churches in the surrounding area, traveled in the back of pickups from the neighboring villages dotting the mountain slopes.

Others spent around two hours on the winding mountain roads leading up to the scenic village, located between 600 to 800 meters above sea level, some 53 kilometers from the district center.

Not all who attended the service were Christians. Some Muslims, including village officials and religious figures, were there and when the service was over, they warmly greeted the Christians.

The cold breeze and the gloomy weather outside did not affect the joy of the Christians and Muslims happily mingling together.

Under the drizzle and billowing dark clouds, churchgoers returned to their pickups, waving goodbye while covering their heads with tarpaulin.

Tempur, known for its coffee and corn plantations, has for several years now also been known as a model of religious harmony.

The village became famous because the church, GITJ Tempur, is fittingly located in front of Asyuhada mosque, the two separated by only a narrow lane.

The atmosphere is calm now and relations between members of the different faiths in good health, but when Christianity first entered the village there was much suspicion and mistrust.

Not too long ago, the situation was different. There were no Christmases and residents were unfamiliar with religions other than Islam, and it had been like that since before anyone could remember.

People from neighboring villages leave GITJ Tempur on a truck after attending Christmas celebrations on Dec. 22, 2013. (JG Photo/Camelia Pasandaran)

People from neighboring villages leave GITJ Tempur on a truck after attending Christmas celebrations on Dec. 22, 2013. (JG Photo/Camelia Pasandaran)

The only Christian in the village

In 1977, a young teacher by the name of Poniyah moved from Bantul, Yogyakarta to Tempur in order to teach first grade students at the state elementary school.

In that cold, windy village, then only connected to the outside world by a footpath, she met her future husband, Suwadi, a person of some substantial local repute.

Suwadi, son of a kyai (Islamic preacher) who was also known in the village for his magic skills, worked as a teacher and a farmer. As a devout Muslim, Suwadi had dozens of students who studied the Koran regularly in a musholla (prayer house).

They lived happily until Poniyah attended a teacher training course in nearby Keling.

Although the young teacher did not realize it at the time, the course was to change the small village forever.

“I stayed in the house of a teacher named Tari during the training,” Poniyah said. “She was a Christian and it was great to see her peaceful life and how happy they were when they went to the church together as a family.”

She decided to embrace Christianity, but the decision outraged her husband, who did everything he could to convert her back.

For four years, calling on the magic skills he had inherited from his father, Suwadi tried to cast a fatal curse on his wife, but to no avail.

“I fought her every Sunday for four years,” he recalled. “I burned her bibles, five of them, and some hymn books. I burned her new outfit which she had bought for Christmas.”

Poniyah, with her growing faith, faced down her husband’s enmity continued to practice Christianity.

Every Sunday, she would walk kilometers to attend church services, leaving at 4 a.m, stepping gingerly down the mountain slopes, a flashlight in hand.

“One Sunday when I returned home, my husband had trashed all the food, keeping me hungry for hours,” she said, adding that there was no restaurant in the village. “He always did bad things to me on Sundays.”

In 1988, after secretly reading the bible, Suwadi decided to convert to Christianity, a decision that upset his family and neighbors.

“My oldest brother, Giran, and his family would not talk to me and my wife for three years,” Suwadi said.

The couple prayed to heal ill people and preached to people in the area, converting several. Eventually, the church had a congregation of some 150 members.

“We prayed for people and they were healed and decided to follow Christ,” Suwadi said. “Half of my Koran students decided to convert. Not because I preached to them, but only because I converted. They said, ‘We’ll follow your religion.’”

The arrival and spread of the new religion in the village outraged some.

“We were confused by the new religion,” said Giran, Suwadi’s brother, who also happened to be the mosque caretaker. “We didn’t understand what this religion was doing in our village.”

One day 12 people mobbed Poniyah after a man named Midi converted, and reported her to the village officials for converting him.

“I explained to them that I did not force anyone to convert, I only preached. It’s their own decision if they want to convert,” Poniyah said. The officials apologized for the misunderstanding.

The teaching couple relentlessly tried to make peace with their neighbors, but it was not easy.

“We kept on being nice to them, we prayed for them and, as God said, we loved them,” Suwadi said.

It took almost 10 years before the relationship between the two religious groups returned to normal and the tension turned into a benevolence between residents.

“I don’t prevent people from converting into Christians, but they need to explain,” Giran said. “I know it’s their right, and later I decided that the most important thing is to maintain the harmony.”

After they came to understand each other, the situation changed.

Christians went freely to the mosque to attend prayer sessions while Muslims would go to church to attend Christmas or other services.

More than just visiting and helping each other during religious holidays, the residents were able to freely convert without fear.

“Converting to another religion is a common thing at the moment here,” said Bayan Suntono, chief of the village development forum.“Muslims can convert to Christians, Christians can convert to Muslims. No one will attack them. We believe in the principle of ‘be to you your religion and be to me my religion.’”

Church founders Suwadi and his wife, Poniyah on Dec. 25, 2013. (JG Photo/Camelia Pasandaran)

Church founders Suwadi and his wife, Poniyah on Dec. 25, 2013. (JG Photo/Camelia Pasandaran)

The story of GITJ and Asyuhada mosque

Once Suwadi decided to convert to Christianity, he built the first church in Tempur, back in 1988.

The village chief at the time, who was called Legiran, initially opposed the construction, saying he allowed Christians in the village, but they could not conduct services, let alone build a church.

But the village residents supported the plan. After getting approval, a group of men — both Muslims and Christians — left their farms to build the 195-square-meter church.

Suwadi gave part of his land for the church but the materials to build it were all donated by residents, both Muslim and Christian.

“The Muslim women also helped us by providing food for the construction workers,” Poniyah said.

Three months later, the church stood proudly on the road winding up the mountain.

They conducted routine Sunday services at 9 a.m. as well as choir rehearsals, praying sessions and youth services.

Years after the church construction, the residents of Pekoso felt the need for a mosque, as there was only a musholla in the hamlet. They searched for land, but the only vacant lot was in front of the church.

After getting approval from both sections of the community, the land was bought and construction started in 2001. Again, the community joined together to build a place of worship.

Once the mosque was completed, the villagers addressed the question of how they would arrange their activities so as to not disturb one another.

In May 2001, Suwadi said the religious figures of the village and the village officials gathered in a house.

“Giran and I signed an agreement stating that we would maintain the harmony in carrying out our activities,” Suwadi said. “Dozens of residents witnessed the signing of the agreement.”

Some church activities were rescheduled to prevent disturbing the mosque routine praying times.

“For instance, every Friday night the prayer group starts at 7 p.m. [previously at 6 p.m], after the prayers at the mosque have finished,” Suwadi said. “Once, there was a Christmas service on a Friday, so we delayed it until after 1 p.m. to let the Muslims performed their important Friday prayer first.”

At Christmas, when the church is not able to handle the volume of worshippers, they sit on the road between the mosque and the church.

From discord to harmony

Bayan’s house was hectic the day before Christmas. The residents had just finished harvesting their corn and should have been busy taking care of the fruits of their labor, but almost all members of the family, except Bayan — who had just undergone cataract surgery — were cooking for their Christian neighbors.

“It’s a tradition here to cook for the Christians during Christmas,” Bayan said. “It’s not only cookies and cakes, but also for the big meal.”

Bayan said the practice had built up as a tradition over the years and many Muslim residents in the village also cooked for Christian families.

In the days running up to Christmas, young Muslims tend to get involved in the preparations, such as bringing chairs from other villages for the guests.

As an expression of gratitude for the help, the Christian families give boxes of food to their neighbors.

In a similar fashion, the Christians help the Muslims during Idul Fitri festivities.

“Some young Christians help prepare decorations to be used for takbir keliling [a parade during which participants shout praises to Allah],” Poniyah said. “Last year, they made the decorations in my house.”

The Christian women cook for the Muslim families on Idul Fitri.

On Idul Adha, the Islamic Day of Sacrifice, Muslims distribute meat equally throughout the village, irrespective of faith.

“They [Christians] get the same amount of meat as us,” Bayan said.

When the Geulis river, located in the middle of the village, broke its banks and flooded some buildings in March of 2006, the disaster strengthened interreligious ties yet further.

“The torrential rain forced me to return home. But then I saw from here that the water had entered people’s houses in other neighborhood. Paddy fields were destroyed, a car was swept away and some houses were damaged,” Giran said.

Some hours later, the Christians gathered in the church while the Muslims gathered in the mosque. All of them prayed according to their preference, asking for God’s help.

“It was an unforgettable moment,” Giran said.

Building and maintaining friendship

Sutoyo, the village chief, said living together peacefully was not something new for the residents.

“It was inherited from our ancestors many years ago,” Sutoyo said, adding that Tempur is an old village known for its cultural artifacts, such as stone yoni and a step pyramid believed to date back to the 14th century.

“For instance, we don’t hire construction workers to build our houses here,” Sutoyo continued. “When someone is building a house, the neighbors will leave their work on the farms for days and sometimes weeks to help with construction. They also sometimes provide the building materials.”

When someone is ill and in hospital, dozens of residents will usually troop down the mountain to visit them.

“We pray for them at the hospital according to our religion,” Bayan said.

In the case of funerals, residents ease the burden of a bereaved family by taking over the preparations.

Giran recalled the time when his mother-in-law, a Christian, passed away.

“I called up my brother Suwadi, asking him what I needed to do,” he said. “People from the church and my neighbors then prepared my house for the funeral and managed the funeral as well.”

The harmony was once threatened when Poniyah converted to Christianity, but as years went by, they have learned to accept the differences.

“The residents meet every 36 days, discussing problems in the village,” Giran said.

“It’s not only the old people, but also the young people attend the meeting. We remind them to maintain the harmony and unity.”

Giran said that at every meeting they tell each other that spreading hatred against other religions would destroy village harmony and in the end make everyone suffer.

Mikael Sagimin, priest at GITJ, said to keep the relationship, religious figures in the village consistently reminded people in different ways.

“As for me, sometimes I talk about ‘loving your neighbor’ in my sermons, to maintain the harmony,” Mikael said. “If your neighbor is nice to you, you have to be even nicer.”

Even though they live far from a major town, residents often watch how religious differences can be a problem in other regions. They said they never worry that such thing could happen in Tempur.

“There’s no such thing like that in this village,” Bayan said. “Old people, young people, even children, they’ve learned that we need to live in peace, letting people perform their religious duties freely.”

Echoing the priest, Suwadi said that the recipe for religious harmony was simple: “Love your neighbors and they will love you back.” The Jakarta Globe

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