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A mosque opens in predominantly Protestant Kupang —a symbol of religious tolerance in Indonesia

News & Commentary  |  By Saurav Upadhyay, Dec 1, 2017

Worshippers at the newly opened Nur Musafir mosque in Kupang City in Indonesia. 

Photo: AFSC / Indonesia

Here’s how an Indonesian interfaith youth movement supported the mosque while organizing for diversity, inclusion, and freedom of religion and belief.

It was five years in the making, but the construction of the Nur Musafir mosque in Kupang City in Indonesia is finally close to completion. Even though the walls haven’t been plastered yet, worshippers from the neighborhood are filing into the mosque for prayers every day—without any cause for concern.

It’s now hard to believe that before the mosque was even built, it had become the focal point for interreligious tensions in Kupang. These tensions became part of a national controversy and sparked heated debates across Indonesia about religious pluralism. In 2011, the local city council had asked Kupang city government to suspend the building of the mosque and revoke its building permit after Christian residents protested its construction.

In the past, such controversy would have led to widespread communal violence—and possibly loss of lives—but there was no bloodshed in this case. Part of the reason why the controversy didn’t escalate into violence was because of the work of Kupang Peacemakers (KOMPAK), a longtime partner of AFSC in Indonesia. KOMPAK facilitated an agreement that brought an end to the standoff between Christians and Muslims around the building of the mosque. Over the years, KOMPAK has helped create a movement in Kupang that is committed to interfaith harmony.

“Kupang is usually very peaceful” says Ningsi, a volunteer with KOMPAK. “There are lots of religions and beliefs represented here which is why this place is so vibrant.” However, she adds, “religion is used to create divisions.”

Construction on the mosque. Photo: AFSC/Indonesia 

Even from its earliest days as a nation, the role of religion in Indonesia has always been contested. Indonesia has a population of over 260 million people and is made up of hundreds of ethnic and religious groups who live on thousands of islands. And although the country was established under the motto “Unity in diversity,” interreligious and interethnic relationships at the local level have always been challenged and determined by national, regional, and global dynamics.

In Kupang, these dynamics were at play during the city’s 2011 mayoral elections. “Religious difference is not just political, it is used as an electoral strategy,” says Zarniel Woleka, founder of KOMPAK and currently AFSC program officer for East Nusa Tenggara Province. “Be it during local, national, or mayoral elections, hatred is mobilized, religious symbols are mobilized.”

Kupang is a city with a predominantly Protestant Christian population. The province of East Nusa Tenggara, in which the city is located, has a predominantly Catholic population. There are also a small number of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well as traditional belief holders. After the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia experienced widespread interreligious violence. Muslim-Christian relations in Kupang, which up to then had been relatively harmonious, also experienced some strife. Christian youths who had seen violence being perpetrated against other Christian communities in different parts of Indonesia retaliated by torching and ransacking mosques and Muslim homes and businesses.

In 2011, religious tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities bubbled up once again and threated to engulf Kupang. The mayor ordered a halt to the construction of the Nur Mosque and revoked its permit, using a regulation called Joint Ministerial Decree on Houses of Worship. This is a national regulation, which mandates that a religious community must ask for permission from the other community members while constructing or renovating houses of worship.

“While this law was supposedly introduced to facilitate interreligious harmony, in practice it is used as a way to get the minority groups to bow to the sentiments of the majority,” says Jiway Tung, AFSC Indonesia program director.

Local Christian residents had protested the building of the mosque following this decree. They claimed that Muslims residents had manipulated and falsified the letters of public consent that are required to obtain building permits. Zarniel thinks that this was a form of retaliation by some Christians in Kupang. In Muslim-majority areas of the country, the decree was being used to close or even destroy churches. Officials in Banda Aceh, for example, under pressure from the hardline Islamic Defenders Front had recently ordered the closure of nine Christian churches and six Buddhist temples. This is perhaps why the national media took up the story and reported on it extensively. A distinctly local conflict had acquired national dimension. Soon various groups began to exploit the incident. The incident was being politicized and used as an example of the persecution of Muslims in the province. An extremist group issued a rallying cry by calling the incident a “crusade.”

The groundbreaking ceremony for the mosque. Photo: AFSC/Indonesia

As tensions continued to rise, KOMPAK—which had been created to oppose religious division and intolerance—mobilized to encourage dialogue and prevent violence from erupting. KOMPAK was active at a grassroots level in building peace through organizing interreligious seminars and workshops in schools and universities, where they trained students in nonviolent conflict resolution techniques. They were active in advocacy campaigns for religious pluralism, diversity, and peace through organizing peace rallies. KOMPAK had also organized religious exchanges, where different religious groups celebrated each other’s festivals together.

Ningsi, who got involved in KOMPAK’s mediation efforts, says that because the mosque incident had made national headlines, the mediation and reconciliation efforts had become even more important. “We knew that we had to make this better” she says. “In Kupang, we have a saying ‘Kupang Kasih,’ which means ‘Kupang love’” she says. “We wanted to be true to that saying and show the rest of Indonesia that we are a tolerant place.” 

The group first met with mosque authorities and offered its services, to help them acquire the building permits. They then met with government officials. Because KOMPAK had previously engaged with religious leaders and government officials, those officials were more willing to listen to their requests and agree to KOMPAK’s proposed intervention. KOMPAK lobbied the government and asked them to help facilitate mediation between the residents who supported the mosque and residents who opposed it. Although the reconciliation efforts took almost four years, there was a breakthrough in September of 2015. The mosque was finally granted the building permit. By that time, largely because of the efforts of KOMPAK, most of Kupang was in favor of the mosque.  

The mosque’s groundbreaking ceremony was led by Mayor Jonas Salean and was attended by both Christian and Muslim religious leaders and citizens. Most of the speakers during the ceremony expressed hope that the reconciliation efforts would serve as an example to the rest of Indonesia. Masjid Nur Musafir now stands as a symbol of interreligious tolerance and religious pluralism.  

Even though building of the Nur Musafir mosque was initially politicized to create interfaith discord, the youth of Kupang through the interfaith group KOMPAK responded by actively getting involved in mediation, conflict resolution, and peace-building efforts. By helping to foster community inclusion and understanding, KOMPAK has become an example of how to counteract the growing efforts to create religious divisions in Indonesia.        

About the Author

Saurav is the International Programs Levering Intern at AFSC. He is interested in journalism, development, peace-building and global affairs. He is originally from Nepal and has been living in Philadelphia for the past 8 years.

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