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Saturday, 18 August, 2001, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Religious tolerance in Indonesia
Indonesian Muslims
Muslims in Medan live in peace with Christians
Every couple of months, there's a story from Indonesia about vicious inter-ethnic violence. But most Indonesians seem to think of their vast nation as a peaceable and tolerant place. The BBC's Hugh Levinson found one answer to this contradiction woven into the fabric of the city of Medan.

Fon Pravira was not expecting visitors. But luckily, he's a hospitable chap.

He came to the gate of his house - a deceptively modest gate - wearing jeans and an undershirt. A little girl hid behind his legs. Dark glasses hid his eyes but his mouth was all smiles.

inter-ethnic violence in Indonesia
Indonesia is well-known for its inter-ethnic violence
"Welcome!" he shouted, ushering us down a side-alley with potted palms at either side. He paused to point out a set of tiny bright frescos painted on medallions high on the walls. "Still the original colours. We never repainted!" he said, and swung open a set of heavy internal doors.

And there it was - the courtyard of his grandfather's magnificent house, the home of Chong Ah Fee. It is a hidden treasure, the finest Chinese-style mansion in Indonesia.

A century ago Chong Ah Fee was the richest man in Medan. A merchant - the merchant really - in a merchant city. And this was his legacy.

Secret splendour

Fon waved us past the scarlet family altar and an enormous carved screen, out into a garden facing onto the city's busiest street.


I think this was my grandfather's philosophy, to get unity for all religions

Fon Pravira
Here was what he really wanted to show us - the messages built into the house. On the front wall were Chinese inscriptions, praising the Confucian virtues of filial piety.

Above were Western-style casement windows, painted green and yellow - green for Islam, yellow for the Malay Sultan.

The house was an ethnic symbol, a religious symbol, a symbol of tolerance. "I think this was my grandfather's philosophy, to get unity for all religions," Fon said, still beaming.

Five minutes walk away was more evidence of his grandfather's philosophy - a silver-roofed mosque.

Traders used to gather in the courtyard to take advantage of the crowds arriving for Friday prayers. Chong Ah Fee had paid for the mosque buildings -and he'd also helped build the local cathedral.

The rich Chinese should, so Chong Ah Fee believed, help other communities. One is no better than another.

City of minorities

It's a belief that's still shared in this bewilderingly diverse city.

Map
There are eight significant ethnic groups - not just Chinese and Malay but also Indians, Batak, Minang and Acehnese. No one group has a majority. They're all minorities, which perhaps explains its inter-communal calm.

Because this is a story about a dog which didn't bark. This is a story about a lack of conflict, an absence of violence. It's the type of story that editors say "won't make". And the editors have a point.

There are plenty of Indonesian stories that should "make". Stories of ethnic savagery, churches burned, Muslims hacked to death, Islamic separatism and ethnic cleansing.

But this country - as Indonesians frequently remind visitors - is a very big place. Most of this vast archipelago, with its thousands of islands, is peaceable and tolerant.


Two members of the Minang people might belong to the same clan, with a common ancestor. But one could be Christian and the other Muslim

And the violence is often apparently the work of agents provocateurs. In fact the phrase has jumped from French to Indonesian: "provokator."

They've had reason to use the word in Medan - there have been bombs in churches and attacks on mosques.

But the population has not been stirred. Maybe that's because of the complexity of the social system. Religion is not the same thing as ethnicity.

Living side by side

Two members of the Minang people might belong to the same clan, with a common ancestor. But one could be Christian and the other Muslim. It's hard to work out who your potential enemy might be.

Chinese Christians forced to leave Indonesia
Chinese Christians are one of many minorities in Indonesia
Tradition plays a part too. That's the way it was explained to me by a remarkable man called Dede Oetomo, on my last trip here. He's a tall, smiley academic, with a discriminating mind and a vast store of knowledge.

When I met him in Central Java, he wanted to take me to a sacred mountain called Gunung Kawi.

As we toiled up a narrow street, lined with noodle stalls and souvenir shops, Dede explained that it was a holy site way back under the old Javanese animist beliefs.

Then Islam arrived, a Javanese Islam, which adopted many of the old practices. So there's a mosque on Gunung Kawi, where pilgrims remember a local Muslim.

The Chinese decided it must be a special place and they built a temple near the summit too.

As he spoke, I noticed one of the stalls was selling icons of a fourth religion - little green plastic Jesuses.

I couldn't resist buying one. My Gunung Kawi Jesus still watches serenely over my bathroom.

See also:

16 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati sorry for rights abuses
21 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia's political turmoil
13 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Indonesia's fragile archipelago
16 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Indonesia
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