Wishing Merry Christmas is Forbidden

Wishing “Merry Christmas” and Celebrating Religious Tolerance in Indonesia

Jakarta - Can Muslims wish someone ‘Merry Christmas’? This is a question that always comes up in Indonesia around Christmas times and gathers mixed opinions.

Ask President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo this question. He will definitely say: “Yes. They can.”

The President is fully aware that many Muslims individuals and organizations in Indonesia, including the powerful Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), still disagree that it is acceptable for Muslims saying Christmas greetings or attending Christmas gatherings.

Jokowi is swimming against the mainstream. Last year, as governor of Jakarta, he went around the city to make sure that security was adequately provided for churches where Christians gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Jokowi dropped in at several Catholic and Protestant churches. He entered churches, including the renowned Catholic Church cathedral and the Immanuel church and then, standing in front of the congregations and said, “Selamat natal bagi jemaat semua”, or “Merry Christmas to all of you”. The churchgoers responded with loud shouts of joy.

Also on the Christmas eve, Jokowi called then vice-governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama to wish him ‘Merry Christmas’.

Jokowi is scheduled to attend the government-sponsored national Christmas gathering in Jayapura, the capital of Papua, the country’s easternmost province, later this month (27 Dec.). He will deliver a Christmas speech during his visit.

Over the past 30 years, the national Christmas celebration has been an annual event that was held in Jakarta at the prestigious Jakarta Convention Center. Well-prepared Christmas songs, orchestras and dramas, which also featured renowned Muslim artists, were performed and were enthusiastically enjoyed by Muslim guests.

So far, no complaint has been aired openly about the national Christmas celebration and other Christmas gatherings at government offices and private organizations across the country.
The restrictions for Muslims during Christmas in Indonesia

In 1981, for the first time, MUI issued an official, strong fatwa (opinion) to keep Indonesian Muslims from wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ and attending Christmas gatherings, including visiting Christian families and friends on Christmas Day.

Again, in December 2012, MUI issued another fatwa that said “Muslims become sinners when they attend Christmas gatherings” and “it is also haram (forbidden) for Muslims to say Christmas greetings”.

The fatwa also said that by attending Christmas gatherings and wishing “Merry Christmas”, Muslims acknowledge that Christian God (and Jesus Christ) is their god.

How far MUI’s fatwas have been effective within the Muslim community remains unclear. Many Muslim workers, for example, still spontaneously shake hands with their Christian co-workers during Christmas while saying “Merry Christmas”.

When asked by the media, some leaders of Muslim organizations and scholars say that wishing “Merry Christmas” should no longer be an issue for Muslims in Indonesia. Muslims, they say, can attend Christmas meetings as long as they are just a social gathering, and not a prayer meeting.
Saying no to Christmas liturgy

Last week, Slamet Effendi, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim mass organization, said Muslims sending Christmas greetings shows religious tolerance, which is a very important value for Indonesia.

“It has nothing to do with a Muslim’s confession of faith,” Slamet told Tempo magazine.

Slamet said that Islamic teachings disallow Muslims to attend Christian liturgical gatherings. He did not say, however, if the national Christmas celebration held so far is a prayer meeting.

Meanwhile, noted Exeget Professor Muhammad Quraish Shihab holds a more tolerant stance.

Shihab said: “As a Muslim, going to your friend’s home to wish him “Merry Christmas” is part of a greeting and (maintaining) a good relationship. Similarly, it is impossible for us, Muslims, to tell our Christian friends not to come to our homes on Idul Fitri Holiday”.

Shihab, who is the former Minister of Religious Affairs under the leadership of president Abdurrahman Wahid, further said, as transcribed from a TV program by Tribunews.com, “as a Muslim, there is nothing wrong with you when you say Christmas greetings while in your heart you say that Prophet Isa is not the son of God.”

Shihab attended university education in Cairo where he witnessed Al Azhar ulemas going to the homes of Christian leaders to wish them “Merry Christmas”. Even, a great ulema in Suriah issued a fatwa that allows such visits, he added.

Meanwhile, Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim said last week that Muslims can even wear Santa Claus hats when attending Christmas gatherings at their workplaces. However, they should not be obliged if they are not comfortable with wearing them.

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