Thursday, May 20, 2004
Chinese Muslims Celebrate 'Imlek' in Mosque
By Slamet Susanto/Tarko Sudiarno, Yogyakarta
The Jakarta Post - Feature (Saturday, January 24, 2004)
An erroneous perception among the majority of local people in this country over the past several decades, nearly led to an ugly incident as a result of a celebration of Imlek or the Chinese New Year at a mosque.
They were led to believe -- apparently without any independent research -- by hearsay or racism-based propaganda that the Imlek celebration was a religious ritual connected to Confucianism or Buddhism. So as a response last year several groups of Muslim hardliners in the Yogyakarta area strongly opposed the celebration of Imlek in a local mosque and even threatened to break up the celebration of the Chinese New Year.
To enlighten these groups about their incorrect perceptions and to improve ethnic and religious tolerance, the Association of Muslim Chinese-Indonesians (PITI) in Yogyakarta decided to celebrate the New Year at a mosque last year. The Syuhada Mosque in Kotabaru was chosen for this unprecedented event -- at least in Java -- for its historical heritage.
The group chairwoman Lie Sioe Fen explained that the New Year celebration was not a religious ritual, but a tradition of his ancestors in expression of their happiness to welcome the spring. The tradition dates back thousands of years, long before any of the major world religions were propagated in China.
"As Muslims, there is nothing wrong with praying and expressing our gratitude in welcoming the New Year in a mosque," Lie Sioe Fen said.
Former chairman of PITI Yogyakarta during the 1983-2002 period, Budi Satyagraha, who initiated the idea to celebrate Imlek in the mosque, said that in the beginning, the idea created some heated debates, especially from the local Muslim hardliners. Such groups considered Imlek a ritual of a non-Islamic religion and they therefore mistakenly were led to believe it should be forbidden in a mosque. That is when they threatened to break up the celebration.
"Many suggested that I cancel the plan, because it was considered impudent, dangerous and could spark conflicts. But with the desire to preserve ethnic traditions and to create inter-religious tolerance, we went ahead. And Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), it was safe and ran well," Budi, who is also a local councillor, recalled.
He said that on Jan. 30 this year, PITI would again celebrate Imlek at the Syuhada Mosque. It will start with an evening prayer (Isya). Other activities such as an informal discussion, the distribution of traditional Chinese New Year cake made of sticky rice, kue keranjang - similar to the distribution of ketupat (rice wrapped in fist-sized container from plaited young coconut leaves) during Idul Fitri holidays, and the distribution of ang pao, lucky money put in red envelopes, from the elder people to the younger ones.
They will also hold sholat sujud, a prayer to express their gratitude to God for their health and prosperity.
Budi said that the celebration of Imlek in the Syuhada Mosque this year would be a bit different from last year. Last year, because it was the first time, there were no Chinese lanterns. But now, lanterns will be installed to decorate the mosque. The lanterns have nothing to do with religion either, he said.
"Long ago in China, there was no electricity, so the people used lanterns as they did not want to be in the dark in welcoming the New Year. So, lanterns do not symbolize any religion," Budi explained.
At its very roots, he said, PITI had always tried to create a harmonious religious life with respect of other religions in peace. Unfortunately, such a message of respect, tolerance and peace is not readily accepted by many groups and so must be communicated in a sensitive way over time.
"Next year, we might put on a barongsai dance in the New Year celebration so it is more cheerful. What's important is that we introduce some of these things in stages," Budi said.
Because Imlek is merely a New Year tradition to celebrate the coming of spring, Lie Sioe Fen explained, everybody in China celebrates it, regardless of their religion, ethnic group or political ideology.
Mosques, churches, temples and viharas all make preparations for the celebration. The New Year celebration is a happy time for people. Winter has passed and the spring is coming. The flowers are beginning to bloom and the planting season starts. This is like welcoming a new life after hibernating in the cold winter's snow, he added.
"It is actually quite similar to many Javanese traditions. Some hold a thanksgiving party to express their gratitude for panen gadu (the harvest at the beginning of the rainy season) and others have different events at that time of the year," Lie Sioe Fen, 49, said.
In order to improve religious tolerance, PITI Yogyakarta also holds other programs. It regularly organizes a charity bazaar, and on the third week of each month, it holds a Koran recital. PITI also often holds discussions and interacts with other groups from different religions.
"All Muslims are brothers and sisters, and all religious people should respect each other," she said.
On Oct. 15, PITI organized a national seminar entitled, Imlek in the Perspective of Culture, Chinese Philosophy and Islamic Law. Among the speakers were Irwan Abdullah, executive director of Religious and Crosscultural Studies and H. Lasiyo, a professor of Chinese philosophy at the University of Gadjah Mada.
"In the future, we hope that PITI will become a bridge for Chinese-Indonesians who want to know more about Islam. They have long been marginalized, so that they've found it difficult to get information, especially about the religion, openly," she said.
She said that PITI will invite public and religious figures (for the coming New Year celebration). It will invite 35 mass Muslim mass organizations in Yogyakarta province and 10 Chinese organizations as well as some Protestant and Catholic leaders. It is hoped that the get-together, with such diverse groups, will be a time of openness and tolerance.
In order to ensure it all goes safely and to prevent any unexpected incidents, PITI has also discussed the Imlek issue with moderate Islamic figures and the Yogyakarta Muslim Ulema Council (MUI).
In the end, the council issued a fatwa (edict), saying that there was no problem with the celebration of Imlek at mosques. It demonstrates that the erroneous perceptions are indeed being eroded and Chinese-Indonesian Muslims are leading the way to tolerance.