Photo by Ari Bowo Sucipto for Antara.

On 12 September Muhadjir Effendy, Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs, announced a change in nomenclature for Christian national holidays.

The decision was made to adopt the term “Yesus Kristus”, the name of Jesus Christ used by Indonesian Christians, instead of “Isa al-Masih”, the Arabic term used for Jesus in the Qur’an.

Saiful Rahmat Dasuki, the Vice Minister of Religious Affairs, said the change was meant to accommodate the wishes of Protestant and Catholic communities. Dasuki has been assisting the Minister for Religious Affairs, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, with a range of programs focused on religious moderation since his appointment this year, including the “1,000 moderate villages” program.

In 2021, Minister Yaqut first used the term “Yesus Kristus” to describe the ascension day of Jesus. Although intended to protect Indonesia’s diverse religious traditions, the policy change reflects how easily religious policies can become a point of contestation among Indonesia’s religiously diverse communities.

Religious holidays in Indonesia

In Indonesia, the government has been relatively accommodating of the religious holidays of minority groups. In fact, the vast majority of Indonesian national holidays are related to religious celebrations.

The most recent ministerial joint decree  no. 855/2023 on holidays includes holidays for each of Indonesia’s six official religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The longest period of religious celebration is observed for the Islamic celebration Idul Fitri, which commemorates the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

This emphasis on religious holidays is a continuation of the Indonesian government’s official support for religious diversity, which is enshrined in the state ideology, known as Pancasila.

But although Indonesia’s Constitution proclaims freedom of religion for its citizens, the implementation of the government’s religious policies can sometimes be used to bestow political powers and privileges on certain religious groups, mainly Mulsims.

What’s in a name?

The term “Isa al-Masih” has been widely used in official Indonesian government communications for decades, largely to accommodate Indonesia’s Muslim majority population, who are more familiar with the Arabic term used in the Qur’an.

For instance, it appeared in the establishment of national holidays in government determination no. 2 in 1946 and has been used continuously ever since. Even the latest decree no. 855/2023 specifying the national holidays for 2024 used the term “Isa al-Masih”  instead of “Yesus Kristus”.

The Bishops’ Conference of Indonesia (KWI), comprised of religious leaders from Indonesia’s Catholic community, have expressed their appreciation for the name change announced in September. For Indonesia’s minority Christians, the decision harmonises the national terminology for religious holidays with the terms they use in prayer and religious celebrations.

Not everyone is happy

But the term “Yesus Kristus” will not be welcomed by conservative Islamic groups who prefer the Qur’anic terminology, which they argue recognises Jesus as a prophet rather than as God incarnate. For instance, conservative groups like the (now-banned) Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have previously expressed their opposition to the change.

Minister Yaqut faced opposition for using the term ‘Yesus Kristus’ in 2021. Critics argued he failed to maintain “neutrality” in the eyes of Muslims and he did not understand the historical significance of the existing naming conventions.

These kinds of linguistic divisions are not unique to Indonesia – similar clashes occur in Malaysia, where Islamist groups warn Christians against using the word “Allah” (God), which some claim belongs exclusively to Muslims.

The challenges of regulating religion

Contestation is not limited to the naming of religious holidays – minority religions also face other obstacles, like difficulties obtaining permits for religious sites in certain regions across the archipelago.

Alfred Stepan’s study of pluralism shows that religious authority in Indonesia has remained in the domain of government – more specifically, the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It cannot be denied that, since the ministry is dominated by Muslim groups, the ministry and its policies often reflect Islamic perspectives. Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the state constitution, religious minorities still need to live within the parameters set by the ministry.

But this name change decision can be regarded as a successful project of religious moderation by the Ministry, seeking to better accommodate the different peaceful expressions of faith practiced by Indonesia’s six official religions.

It will be celebrated by Christians and all Indonesians who believe in religious moderation and a strengthening of multifaith dialogue.


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