Young men joining the protest march against Jakarta's former Governor Ahok in December 2016. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Young men joining the protest march against Jakarta’s former Governor, Ahok, in December 2016. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, opened the 30th Catholic students congress in Palembang, on the island of Sumatra, this week by telling them to work together for “peace” and “harmony”.

The president told the 3,800 participants that the “Pancasila”, the five principles that make up the state philosophy of the Indonesian nation, were important for living in a multi-cultural society.

“We must support each other, regardless of our religions, tribes, beliefs or other factors. Let us not forget that we are brothers and sisters, united in the diversity of Indonesia,” he said, as reported by Catholic news agency Fides.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago nation, is made up of 714 tribes who speak different languages and have different religions, and it is the first time a president has opened the annual national congress of Catholic students.

President Widodo also called on the students to be active citizens, to participate in the upcoming local elections and contribute to a “clean” process, Matters India reports.

However, in March last year he blamed democracy for rising religious intolerance in the country, saying democracy had “gone too far” and that “political freedom paved the way for extreme political practices”.

Religious intolerance

One of the aims of the Catholic conference was to teach and develop “tolerance”.

The radicalisation of Indonesian youths was highlighted during the blasphemy trial last year of Jakarta’s former Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”), a Christian and ethnic Chinese.

Then in November World Watch Monitor reported how a survey held among 4,000 high school and university students showed that nearly 20 per cent of them would “support the establishment of a [Muslim] caliphate over the current secular government” and that one in four was willing to fight to achieve this.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, with a population of 263 million people. Christians constitute 12% of the population, with approximately 3% from a Catholic background.

Although a rights group said this week that the country saw fewer violations of religious freedom in 2017, on the most recent Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, Indonesia rose from 46th position last year to 38th.

“The situation for Christians has deteriorated in the course of recent years”, Open Doors said.