Category: Religion

Indonesia’s Hajj and Umrah operators count cost of pandemic

As Indonesia faces the health implications of a surge in coronavirus cases, the country’s Hajj and Umrah tour operators have been particularly badly affected by the economic fallout from the global pandemic.

After authorities in Saudi Arabia announced that only a few thousand pilgrims who reside in the Kingdom will be allowed to perform Hajj this year, it is feared that up to 60 percent of Indonesia’s tour operators might be forced to close for good.

“The majority of Hajj and Umrah tour operators have put their employees on furlough in the absence of travel activities,” said Muharom Ahmad, secretary of the Indonesian Haj and Umrah Tour Operators Society (Forum SATHU).

“The remaining 40 percent have managed to stay afloat because they have other branches of business that can continue to thrive during the pandemic, such as food and beverages, or education.”

The group is a forum for five Hajj and Umrah tour-operators’ associations, including Ahmad’s Indonesian Association of Haj and Umrah Private Operators (Himpuh). The forum represents more than 1,300 businesses in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. All of them are accredited by the nation’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The Indonesian government announced the cancellation of pilgrimages on June 2. Ahmad estimates that the suspension of Hajj and Umrah travel for a year could cost tour operators about 32 trillion rupiahs ($2.2 billion).

“Those revenues would have been trickling down to our vendors and partners, such as airlines, hotels, caterers, and suppliers of pilgrims’ clothing and travel amenities,” he said.

Since March, he added, the majority of tour operators had been unable to keep their businesses running, except to process refunds.

“Even those that diversified their businesses to include food and beverages face steep competition in a market that is already saturated since that seems to be the business that everyone is turning to at this moment,” said Ahmad.

On July 14, Airlangga Hartarto, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for economic affairs, revealed that the food and beverage industry is one of the few sectors to record growth during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati announced that the government has allocated 695 trillion rupiahs to an economic-recovery package.

Ahmad said the pandemic is not the only reason tour operators are going out of business; the increasing popularity of online, do-it-yourself Umrah packages is another factor, as they allow pilgrims to visit Saudi Arabia and perform Umrah on a tourist visa, with no need to enlist the help of a tour operator.

In each of the past two years, an average of 1 million Indonesian pilgrims traveled to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, and the country had the largest Hajj quota in the world this year, amounting to 221,000 pilgrims. Of those 17,680 were “special pilgrims,” who use private Hajj and Umrah tour operators.

Ahmad, who has been in the tour business since 2005, said about 30 percent of the Hajj pilgrims registered with his company had canceled their plans completely. The rest agreed to postpone their trips until next year after the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that those who had paid in full to attend Hajj this year would be placed on a priority list for 2021.

“We still managed to have about 200 Umrah pilgrims depart earlier this year before everything stopped,” he said, adding that he has no idea when pilgrimages will resume.

“Some of us, with a pessimistic view, estimate that the soonest we could be back in business is by March next year. Everything is so uncertain that it is difficult to make any business plans at the moment.”

The story was first published in Arab News

Beefed up: Indonesia’s sacrifice ritual to rake in $1.4bn despite pandemic

Eid Al-Adha festivities in Indonesia could generate 20.5 trillion rupiahs ($1.4 billion) this year, based on purchases made by an estimated 2.3 million families for the annual sacrifice.

The Qurbani could involve about 117 tonnes of sacrificed meat, offering a chance to increase the country’s low beef consumption and address its malnutrition problem, if officials can address unequal meat distribution, according to a June study by the Institute for Demographic and Poverty Studies.

The study found that the middle-upper class Muslim families of the country is 9 percent, or 5.6 million of the 62.4 million total Muslim families of the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country.

“Out of those in the middle-upper class bracket, we estimated 40 percent would buy a Qurbani cattle, based on a conservative assumption that one family would donate just one cattle, either a cow or a goat, given the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Askar Muhammad, a researcher at the Jakarta-based think tank.

However, about 71 percent of those families are concentrated in the capital Jakarta and other cities in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island, causing concern that there could be a surplus of sacrificed meat in some areas, also in Muslim-minority regions, such as on Papua island, where there are not enough beneficiaries.

Muhammad said a scheme is needed to help beneficiaries in remote areas of Java and other islands access sacrificed meat for the festival.

“For most beneficiaries, this could be the only time of the year when they have the opportunity to consume meat,” he said.

He said: “This is also a good window for us to improve public health and nutrition levels, considering that our average meat consumption is low.”

Indonesia’s beef and sheep meat consumption stands at an annual 2.4 kg per capita, well below the global average of 8.1 kg, according to 2019 data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Most beneficiaries also do not have the means to preserve fresh meat for later consumption and cooking the meat would require extra costs. The meat could also spoil during the distribution process to regions where beneficiaries are concentrated,” said Ali Nurhasan, head of the Qurbani committee at Muslim charity Rumah Zakat.

Nurhasan said the group has been tackling the problem since 2003 by distributing donated sacrificed meat as canned and corned beef or rendang, a West Sumatran specialty dish of slow-cooked beef.

“Our priority is to distribute the cans to beneficiaries in areas where donators are, but we also set aside cans as a national stock for distribution to remote areas and survivors of disasters, such as the recent flash floods in Masamba,” Nurhasan said, referring to the July 13 flash floods which struck in South Sulawesi province, killing 38 people and displacing more than 14,000.

In 2019, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa, which allowed the preservation of sacrificed meat in cooked and canned form for later use.

Read the full story in Arab News 

No sacrifice too small: Indonesian kids use savings to buy four sacrificial cows

A little goes a long way for a group of children from Bogor, a city in West Java about an hour’s drive from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

The children, led by 15-year-old Abu Bakar Sidik, have been saving 10,000 rupiahs every day since August last year to collect a total of 100 million rupiahs ($6,700) – enough to buy four cows from a local cattle breeder ahead of this year’s annual qurbani ritual.

Besides Sidik, the group includes 23 children from Kampung Ardio, a neighborhood in the middle of the city, some of whom have participated in the initiative before.

It all began last year when Sidik and six other children raised 21.7 million rupiahs to buy their first cow.

“This year we bought four cows as we had more friends and acquaintances who chipped in after we bought one cow last year,” Sidik, who is the youngest of seven siblings, said.

He said they started to save the money toward the end of 2018. The initial motivation was to have enough to buy new clothes and go sightseeing during the Eid Al-Fitr holiday in 2019.

But a month into the initiative, Sidik says he asked his friends if they would agree to use the savings to buy a sacrificial animal instead.

“There were 13 of us at the start, but some kids backed out along the way, with only seven left in the group,” he said.

Some of the children, such as 11-year-old Fauzan, gets 15 thousand rupiahs from his parents every day, while Zalfa, 12, gets 20 thousand rupiahs.

“My friends agreed to the change of plan. My motivation is just to be able to share with others this qurbani meat, since it is also part of a Muslim’s religious observance. We also asked our parents’ permission first when we started to save, and they supported us,” said Sidik, who collects the money from the rest of the group every day.

He added that he learned about the significance of the sacrifice ritual during religious classes at school, which are part of the Indonesian school curriculum, and from his Qur’an recital lessons.

The festival marks the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah in Saudi Arabia, also known as the Hajj, and is also referred to as the Lebaran Haji (the Pilgrims’ Celebration Day) across Indonesia and Malaysia.

The ritual revolves around an all-inclusive principle of giving, wherein the sacrificed meat is distributed among relatives, friends, the poor and needy, with a part kept for use by the family.

Last year, Fauzan’s mother “kept the money for them.” This year, Sidik’s 38-year-old sister Ida Farida put their money in a bank.

“I was a bit concerned about having to take care of the kids’ savings but, since Fauzan’s mother said she couldn’t handle it again, I had to do it,” Farida said, adding that she was unaware of her little brother’s initiative last year until their story went viral and was picked up by national media.

“I was surprised and proud at the same time. He’s just a kid, but he has this mature thinking to buy a qurbani animal and to share (the sacrificed meat) with others.”

Sidik, for his part, said he and his friends would continue with their initiative, especially since their efforts have garnered more support with at least five more friends expressing an interest in joining the group for the ritual next year.

Yoghi Oktapiansyah, a general assistant at Bintang Tani Madani, the cattle breeder in Bogor where Sidik and his friends bought their cows, said they had no idea that the children would buy one of their cows when they visited the farm for the first time last year.

Oktapiansyah said the farm assistants thought they just wanted to “hang around and play at the barn looking at the cows just like other kids.”

“They were with an adult, their Quran recital teacher, who accompanied them. But it was the kids who looked at the cows and chose their own cow,” said Oktapiansyah.

He said they knew that Sidik and his friends would continue their initiative this year and would buy the cow from the farm again, as Sidik had been working part-time since last year as a reseller for the farm’s dairy products.

“Iki (Sidik’s nickname) never took his money from what he earned selling our dairy products as he deposited the money with us to buy this year’s cow. But we were really surprised when the kids came here and said they wanted to buy four cows,” Oktapiansyah said, adding that the farm would handle the cows’ slaughtering process before the meat is distributed to Kampung Ardio’s residents.

The story was first published in Arab News

Living with the dead: Indonesia’s Torajans downsize burials amid pandemic

She had been dead for two years and was ready to be buried. After restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) were imposed in March, however, villagers in the La’bo village of the North Toraja regency in Sulawesi Island had no choice but to suspend the ceremony at the last minute.

On Saturday, they were finally able to hold a proper burial for the deceased village elder in a toned-down version of the elaborate, centuries-old ceremony known as Rambu Solo. The ceremony is central to the lives of the Toraja ethnic group, who are predominantly Christian but hold some animistic belief.

The Torajas inhabit two administrative areas — the North Toraja and Tana Toraja regencies — in the South Sulawesi province.

For Torajans, the deceased are not dead yet; they are seen, rather, as sick. Family members still talk to them, bringing food and drinks and keeping essential items nearby. The mummified corpse remains unburied in the family’s tongkonan, or a Toraja traditional house, while years of preparations for the burial ceremony is underway. It is a large family affair which would last for up to a week in pre-COVID-19 times, involving the entire village and requires the sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes.

“We condensed the ceremony to only two days. We also conducted the burial in compliance with health protocols by providing a hand washing station at the entrance. All mourners who came in had to wear face masks,” Yohannes Limbong, a family representative said.

The family was supposed to hold the ceremony on March 25, but it was suspended after the regency administration issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, advising citizens to hold off on any events involving large gatherings of people such as the Rambu Solo.

A relative mourns on the deceased’s coffin. (Photo: Lisa Saba Palloan)

As of Saturday, the regency has not reported any COVID-19 deaths, but there were four confirmed cases, all of whom were travelers from virus-infected areas, including the provincial capital, Makassar, about 317 kilometers away. 

The province has had 3,635 confirmed cases so far or about 8 percent of the 45,029 national caseloads. North Toraja, which has a population of 230,000, has lifted some restrictions in recent weeks after the region was considered an area where the risk of infections is low, allowing for religious events. Participants are nevertheless required to observe health protocols.

“There were less than 100 mourners who attended the ceremony. Normally, it would be double that amount or more,” Lisa Saba Palloan, a local tourist guide, said.

Romba Marannu Sombolinggi, chairwoman of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago Toraya chapter, said that families who conducted the burials recently had to compromise between the obligation to perform a respectable send-off and compliance with social restrictions.

“A complete ceremony could take at least five days,” she said.

“But we are obeying government regulations. There are some disappointments, but we understand the situation. We do not want people to be infected because we insist on having the long ceremony.”

A few people had died who were under treatment but who had tested negative for COVID-19. They had to be buried in accordance with health protocols as soon as possible, which meant that the surviving family members could not keep the deceased embalmed in their houses as they would traditionally do.

“The families still performed the most essential rituals, including sacrificing at least a pig or a buffalo before the burial,” Sombolinggi said.

Sombolinggi said that buffaloes are sacrificed to mark the symbolic passage to death since they would serve as the deceased’s “carriage” in the afterlife.

“It is very much about the family’s dignity. They would otherwise experience social repercussions if they were not able to hold a presentable burial,” she added.

Read the full story in Arab News

Lautze Mosque: A symbol of Chinese-Muslim assimilation in Indonesia

The bright red, yellow and green temple-like exterior of the Lautze Mosque in Jakarta’s Chinatown could be mistaken for a Chinese home.

However, the distinctive structure of the mosque reaffirms its role as a good example of how Indonesians of Chinese descent blended in with their predominantly indigenous Muslim neighbors.

“Many mistook the mosque for a Chinese temple, so two years ago, we put up signs bearing the name of the mosque,” Imam Naga Kunadi said.

The three-story mosque is part of a row of buildings in a busy trading area along Lautze Street, after which the mosque is named, in Central Jakarta. Because of its location, the mosque only opens during the day.

“In Ramadan, we usually open every Saturday, starting at Asr time, because we have a specific type of congregation — many of the members live far from the mosque. We would provide iftar and hold taraweeh prayers. But we cannot do that this year as we have to close due to the large-scale social restrictions in this time of coronavirus,” Kunadi said.

Kunadi, whose Chinese name is Qiu Xue Long, said the mosque would still operate in a subdued manner for alms collection and distribution, or to assist those wishing to convert to Islam, and that mosque officials would act in compliance with social distancing measures.

The mosque was established in 1991 by the Haji Abdul Karim Oei Foundation, named after a Chinese-Indonesian Muslim nationalist, the late Abdul Karim Oei Tjeng Hien.
It aimed to facilitate the assimilation of the ethnic Chinese community and indigenous Muslims, especially in cases where ethnic Chinese people wished to embrace Islam.

“We understand the specific needs of Chinese mualaf (convert). We understand what they go through because we’ve experienced it before,” said Kunadi, who converted to Islam in 2002.

The original mosque occupied a shophouse and, a few years later was expanded after acquiring an adjacent building to accommodate 300 congregation members.

“The Chinese-style exterior is also to show that we still maintain our Chinese heritage even though we converted to Islam,” Kunadi said.

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Muslim faithful gathered for a mass taraweeh prayer in Ramadan 2019 in front of Lautze Mosque 2 in Bandung, West Java. Photo: Instagram @masjidlautze2

Muhammad Ali Karim Oei, son of Oei Sr., said the facade was designed to make the mosque more welcoming for ethnic Chinese people wishing to come inside and ask about Islam.

“They are free to ask anything and learn about Islam here, even some burning questions they may be reluctant to ask in other mosques. It is another reason we chose the name Lautze — a Chinese word for teacher,” Oei Jr. said.

The mosque has seen more than 1,000 Chinese-Indonesians embrace Islam. In addition to making an ethnic Chinese person part of the country’s Muslim majority, it also makes the person a double minority for being a Muslim minority in an already small ethnic group.

Its reputation as a nonjudgmental place for Chinese-Indonesians who want to study Islam, and for the new converts, as well as other Chinese Muslims to observe the faith, led to the establishment of Lautze Mosque 2 in Bandung, West Java in 1997.

“There was a need for a mosque that accommodates the growing number of Chinese-Indonesian Muslims in the city. They felt like there was still a gap when they pray in regular mosques. People would look at them differently, even though they are already part of the Muslim brethren,” Hernawan Mahfudz, an official from Lautze Mosque 2 Foundation told Arab News.

To make them feel more at home, congregation members are encouraged to address each other as “koko” and “cici,” the Chinese words for brother and sister.

Like its Jakarta predecessor, the mosque maintains the Chinese-style facade accentuated by a row of Chinese red lanterns. The ground floor serves as the prayer hall for 200 people while the upper floor serves as a shelter for the mualafs who might be experiencing hardship as a result of their conversion.

Despite the mosque closures, Mahfudz said they would still keep the Ramadan tradition alive even without the communal gatherings.

“We still provide iftar meals every day but instead of having them at the mosque, we distribute the meals directly to the beneficiaries. We also conduct group Qur’an recitations and sermons using videoconferencing applications,” he said.

This story was first published in Arab News

A crate idea: Indonesian architects reuse plastic boxes to build mosque

Under normal circumstances, the small mosque on the outskirts of Jakarta constructed from 1,208 used plastic bottle crates would have been abuzz with the sound of people praying and reciting the Quran during Ramadan.

It would be the first Ramadan since the 42-meter-square mosque was built in late 2019, following the establishment of Kebun Ide (Garden of Ideas) — a restaurant with a back-to-nature theme — which houses the facility.

The coronavirus pandemic might have prevented communal prayers, but the mosque’s plastic recycling design is still attracting attention.

“Since we have this prayer room, many residents around here have expressed interests to organize gatherings such as group Quran recitations there. But unfortunately, we cannot do that now as we have to close the restaurant due to social distancing rules,” Handoko Hendroyono, the owner of Kebun Ide, told Arab News.

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A worshipper prayed inside Kotakrat, a praying room that can accommodate nine worshippers and constructed of 1,208 reused plastic bottle crates built in late 2019 in Bintaro township on the southern outskirts of Jakarta. Photo: Instagram @psastudio

The pavilion, named Kotakrat, was initially constructed to be part of a local architectural exhibition in Bintaro township.

“The project concept was good because it reused discarded material, and there was a need for a praying room for our guests and employees, so I agreed to have the Kotakrat to be constructed in our space. Now we have a very good place to pray. Many visitors didn’t realize that it is actually a prayer room,” he added.

Designed and constructed by architect firm PSA Studio, Kotakrat is part of an architectural project to build a multi-purpose “space of kindness” to meet the community’s social needs.

“This space of kindness can be in the form of a kiosk, place of worship, shelter, bus stop, security post, and many other places. It is built from plastic crates that we can easily find and install to form a space for various architectural shapes and purposes. The crates can be arranged to function as a roof, a partition, and a wall,” Ario Wirastomo, a principal architect in the firm, told Arab News.

This construction used 1,208 used plastic bottle crates to form the prayer room’s walls and roof, and benches for the visitors to remove their shoes before entering.

It also provides water faucets for congregants to perform ablutions.

The architects used bolts to join the crates. They also used a polycarbonate roof supported by hollow metal frames.

The mosque has two separate entrances for men and women, although it does not separate men and women in the 8.64-meter-square praying space that can accommodate three rows of nine worshippers. The first row is for the imam, while the other two rows are for men and women respectively.

“As a prayer room is a public place that Muslims would look for to perform the five daily prayers everywhere they go, we expect the Kotakrat space would be durable and functional for a long time,” Wirastomo said.

Despite reusing discarded material, Wirastomo said he could not claim this project was environmentally friendly but he hoped people would be more aware of recycling waste.

Indonesia is one of the world’s top plastic waste producers with 5.05 million tonnes of plastic rubbish generated annually, out of which 81 percent is mismanaged and contributes 10 percent to the global total of mismanaged plastic waste. Our World In Data projected that Indonesia would contribute almost 11 percent of global mismanaged plastic waste by 2025.

The country’s chief maritime affairs and investment minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, recently said that Indonesia has come up with an action plan that aims to reduce 70 percent of its plastic pollution by 2025, hoping to be free of plastic waste by 2040.

This story was first published in Arab News

Indonesians face sombre Ramadan amid pandemic restrictions

During the fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week, Muslims in this mostly Muslim country are accustomed to spending more time at mosques, iftar gatherings with friends and other, more casual social mores.

But this year, with more deaths from COVID-19 than any Asian country outside China, many in Indonesia will not be able to attend in-person evening prayers, merry breaking of fasts at day’s end or travel home at the end of the holy month to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr, as they  keep to themselves to help curb the spread of the disease.

Authorities in the greater Jakarta region, home to 30 million people — and across the nation that is home to 12% of the world’s Muslims have ordered places of worship, schools and nonessential businesses to close temporarily.

The Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, has followed with a fatwa, or clerical ruling, that calls on Muslims not to perform Friday prayers and other congregation activities in mosques during the pandemic, instead urging the faithful to conduct Ramadan evening prayers at home.

 

“Performing prayers at home won’t reduce the value of our devotion to God,” said Asrorun Ni’am, secretary of MUI’s fatwa commission, last week. “Just staying at home to avoid spreading the virus or being exposed to the virus is considered a religious duty at a time like this.”

Ni’am said the pandemic was an opportunity for Muslims to strengthen their faith and family bonds. “We can turn our home into the center of worship. We pray together and share iftar meals with our family,” he said.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, in a circular released last week, banned government institutions from hosting iftar gatherings.

“Post-Ramadan gatherings can be conducted via social media or call/video conferences,” said the circular.

The council also said that traveling while knowing that one could be carrying the virus is a sin.

While the edicts have not been universally followed — hundreds of members of the international Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat have been quarantined at two Jakarta mosques, after some worshippers tested positive for COVID-19 — many Indonesians are accepting the curtailed Ramadan as fate.

“We have no other choice but to pray at home. Praying together in a mosque is religiously preferable, but I’m sure God will understand,” said Arie Gustian, a 27-year-old member of a mosque in Bogor, West Java. “We have to obey our government, because it’s for our own good.”

Gustian said he will be the only one who fasts in the house because his wife is pregnant, and he will be doing so while worrying about the security of his job.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said Friday (April 17) that more than 1.4 million workers had been furloughed or laid off and the government has warned that 5.2 million could lose their jobs.

Renaldi Adri Rimbatara, a 32-year-old father of two who lives in Bogor, fears for his future as the pandemic has forced him to temporarily close his small printing shop.

Rimbatara said he will keep his iftar feast simple this year.

“I don’t know if I can continue to put food on the table if this situation persists,” he said.

Even those who continue to work expect a somber Ramadan. Diana Marsella, a 33-year-old software engineer in Jakarta, has worked from home for a month and said she’s not worried that fasting will make her susceptible to contracting the virus. “We’ll just have to consume more health supplements and eat a lot more fruit and vegetables,” she said.

But she said the confinement would surely make days feel longer. “Ramadan is a time of joy and people spend a lot of time outside praying, meeting friends and even eating suhoor (pre-dawn meals) outside,” she said. “This time it will not be like that.”

For members of the persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the restrictions to defend against COVID-19 will make this Ramadan doubly difficult. Indonesia’s council of Muslim scholars has declared the teachings of the sect, founded in 1889 by Indian Muslim scholar Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be deviant.

The Ahmadiyya, who number about 400,000 in Indonesia, have been targets of attacks by Muslim extremists since at least 2005, when the MUI issued a fatwa declaring that anyone who follows its teachings is no longer Muslim. In 2011, hundreds of machete-wielding residents attacked a house in the Pandeglang district in Banten province, west of Jakarta, killing three Ahmadis.

“It’s like we are at war with two kinds of virus – the coronavirus and the virus of intolerance,” said Abdul Hafiz, a preacher at the Ahmadiyya community’s headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta.

The mosque in Depok has been sealed off for years, its front door blocked by wooden bars. A sign plastered on the door declares that the building has been closed by the city. Worshippers have been forced to perform congregation prayers in the courtyard outside the mosques.

But Hafiz said their predicaments would not stop the dozen or so Ahmadis at the mosque from worshipping during Ramadan, or carrying out charitable activities, while observing social distancing measures and obeying restrictions imposed by the government.

“During Ramadan, we usually distribute iftar meals to the needy, attend iftar gatherings and perform congregation taraweeh (evening) prayers,” Hafiz said. “This year we will do whatever the authorities tell us to do. But of course as social beings, we have an obligation to help each other and we will continue to do that despite the limitations.”

This story was first published by Religion News Service and The GroundTruth Project exploring how faith communities around the world are adapting to COVID-19, produced with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Something to celebrate

The Indonesian government has added another cultural event of its ethnic Chinese community to its official list of top attractions in a bid to lure more domestic and international tourists.

Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the Chinese New Year period, and the most lavish celebrations take place in Singkawang, a coastal town of roughly 240,000 in West Kalimantan on Borneo. About 40% of the town’s residents are of Chinese descent, but the celebration itself is a fusion of Chinese, indigenous Dayak and Malay cultures, laden with mysticism and supernatural power.

The highlight of the annual festival is the parade featuring Tatung, or people who are believed to have supernatural powers because they are possessed by the spirits of their ancestors or deities.

Dressed in the colorful garb traditional Chinese and Dayak warriors, more than 800 Tatungs from Singkawang and neighboring towns, as well as from Malaysia and Australia, thronged the town’s main streets on the last day of the celebration on Feb 8.

Spectators lining the parade route watched in awe as marchers demonstrated their supernatural abilities by having their faces and bodies pierced with sharp metal objects. Some were hoisted wooden chairs, but instead of soft upholstery, the seat, backrest, and armrest contain rows of sharp blades and arrows.

“We are proud that Chap Goh Mei in Singkawang is included again in the tourism ministry’s annual top 100 calendar of events, and has become one of the top festival destinations for tourists,” Mayor of Singkawang, Tjhai Chui Mie said prior to the parade.

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A Tatung stepped on a blade as he was hoisted on a chair with arrows of sharp blades and passed by the main podium during the annual Tatung parade in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb 8, 2020. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The annual parade was the culmination of two weeks festivities that started on Jan 23. It has become the main attraction to spur economic growth in Singkawang, through the development in the real sector, the mayor added.

Last year’s festivities attracted 76,964 foreign and domestic tourists, an increase from about 70,000 in 2018, according to the ministry.

Sutarmidji, governor of West Kalimantan, acknowledged the festivities were the biggest tourism event in the province.

“When I was the mayor of Pontianak, I did not allow the Tatung parade to be held during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebration so that it would remain the main attraction for Singkawang,” he said.

“Pontianak can have the longest dragon dance, but the Tatung parade should be the focus of Singkawang’s Chap Goh Mei.”

Tatung Dayak1 (1)
Dressed as a Dayak warrior, a Tatung made his way to Tri Dharma Bumi Raya temple to pay respect during the road cleansing ritual on Feb 7, 2020, in Singkawang, West Kalimantan. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Dian Halidi, a tourist from Sumbawa Besar, the main city on Sumba Island in central Indonesia, said he had come to the festivities because he was curious to see the Tatung parade in person.

“I came here just by myself and this is my first time in Singkawang. It turned out the Chap Goh Mei here is really amazing and as spectacular as I have been seeing on television.”

Hotels and homestays in the city were fully booked ahead of the parade, wit room rates as much four times higher than they normally are. Some tour operators even had to book the rooms for their clients a year in advance.

However, concern about the coronavirus in recent weeks led to some people having second thoughts about traveling, although Indonesia officially has reported no cases of infection yet.

Hotel occupancy and visitor numbers slipped as a result, although Daniel, a manager of a homestay in Central Singkawang, said the rooms in his establishment were fully booked for the festivities.

“But reservations and confirmations were slow and occurred at the last minute,” he said.

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The Dragon statue, one of Singkawang’s landmarks, was adorned with red lanterns during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebrations in the West Kalimantan town. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Hellen Chia, who comes from a family of Tatung and whose siblings are Tatungs from the Tho Fab Kiung temple took part in the parade, said that this year’s crowds of spectators were smaller compared to last year.

Dewi Virtana, a tour leader from a tour operator in Surabaya, East Java, said her company took just one group of 31 tourists to Singkawang this year, compared with three groups last year.

“I think it was mainly due to the rising prices of plane tickets, instead of the coronavirus,” she said.

But another tour operator based in Pontianak, Sentosa Tour, reported a small upturn this year. One of its tour leaders, Willy, said the company had about 200 guests this year, compared to 180 last year.

“We see the number of clients increase every year, he said. “Ninety percent of our clients are domestic, from other big cities in the country, and we also had a few foreign visitors from Japan and Australia who booked our private tours.”

In a bid to attract more tourists to the city, which is about four-hour drive from Pontianak, Mayor Thjai said the city has allocated and cleared an area of 151.45 hectares to build an airport and is seeking to develop it under a public-private partnership.

According to the transport ministry, the first phase of the airport will have a 1,400-metre runway that could accommodate ATR aircraft. A 2,600-metre runway that would allow a Boeing 737 to land could be developed in the future.

A day before the parade, the Tatung also toured the city performing a road cleansing ritual to ward off bad spirits. They also paid respects to their ancestors and deities by visiting various temples and houses of worships, or cetiya, scattered around Singkawang, which is known as the city of a thousand temples.

Jelangkung Datuk Suleiman
Rattan dolls from the Hok Lo Nam temple believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities were brought to pay respect to the sea goddess in the century-old House of Tjhia in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb 7, 2020. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

An entourage from the Hok Lo Nam temple also took part in the ritual. Carrying five dolls made of rattan and dressed in colorful Chinese costumes, the entourage visited a cetiya at a century-old mansion belonging to the Thjia clan in the city center, to pay their respect to the sea goddess to which the cetiya is dedicated.

The dolls were believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities, as well as a local Malay elder identified as Datuk Suleiman.

More cities in the country with a large population of Chinese descent have been making Chap Goh Mei, or the 15th day of the Chinese new year an annual celebration. They include Jakarta, Palembang in South Sumatra, Bali, and Bogor in West Java.

Bogor celebrated in style this year, with organizers buoyed by the tourism ministry’s decision to place the festival on its official calendar of events.

The West Java provincial administration has even disbursed 30 billion rupiahs to revamp Suryakencana Street, the main street where the annual Chap Goh Mei parade is held in Bogor, 55 kilometers south of Jakarta.

“This is a show of support from the provincial administration,” West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.

The story was first published in Bangkok Post

Minister urges fatwa requiring rich to marry poor

An Indonesian minister has called for a fatwa, or religious edict, requiring the rich to marry the poor to reduce inequality.

“What happens is the poor marry the poor and they create more poor families,” Minister of Human Development and Culture Muhadjir Effendy was quoted as saying by the news portal Tempo.co.

“The religious affairs minister should issue a fatwa requiring the rich to marry the poor and the poor marry the rich,” he said.

In November, Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi said he was considering requiring those wishing to get married undergo a pre-marital preparation course.

He has not responded to Muhadjir’s suggestion.

A 2017 study by international charity Oxfam found that four richest Indonesians own as much wealth as the country’s poorest 100 million citizens. Indonesia is home to 260 million people.

Indonesia taps into Muslim tourist market with Shariah hotels

Hotel-Cut-Meutia
Shariah-based Hotel Sofyan in Central Jakarta. Photo: Sofyan Hotel

With a rising awareness to promote Muslim-friendly travel, the widespread adoption of Shariah-based accommodation is not always successfully put into practice, as Octine Riyantini realized during one of her stays at a hotel that claimed to be Shariah-compliant.

Riyantini has stayed in two Shariah-based hotels in Indonesia and had a good experience with the first one, where she found that hotel staff always greeted guests with the Islamic greeting, had call of prayers blasted from a speaker and provided prayer amenities as well as a Qibla sign in each room.

“The ambiance was very much Islamic and the hotel itself was clean and well-maintained,” she said.

She had a different experience with the second one, despite the Shariah label that goes with the hotel’s name in an online hotel reservation website.

Although they provided a prayer room on each floor, Riyantini said it seemed like it was hastily prepared and a bit spooky, so she and her family chose to pray in their room. Moreover, the hotel was not properly maintained.

“Maybe they consider their hotel to be Shariah-compliant just because they provide a prayer room on each floor and a Qibla sign in the room, yet the overall ambiance hardly felt like it was Muslim-friendly,” she said.

“I learned that not all hotels that claimed to be Shariah-based are really compliant to the value. If we have to stay in such a hotel another time, we will have to consider which hotel chain it is associated with,” she said.

Muslim-friendly travel and tourism in Indonesia continues to rise, with Indonesia named as the number one destination, out of 130 countries, for halal tourism in the world by the Global Muslim Travel Index 2019.

Service providers have been quick to tap into the growing market, despite the controversy and misconceptions about halal tourism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

According to a survey conducted by accommodation network operator Airy, 60 percent of Indonesian travelers think that it is important to have Shariah-based accommodation. The figure was consistent with data from the Alvara Research Center, which showed that 64 percent of Indonesian millennials travel and go on holiday at least once a year, providing a market of about 26 million holiday-hunting Muslim millennials.

Responding to the market demand, Airy in 2016 began offering a segment called Airy Syariah or a Shariah-based accommodation network.

“Our Airy Syariah properties offer Muslim-friendly accommodation so that guests can stay comfortably and worry-free. The market response has been good and demand for Shariah-based accommodation continues to rise every year. Our occupancy rate so far stands at 40 percent to 70 percent,” Airy vice president for marketing, Ika Paramita, said.

Paramita said Airy cooperates with more than 400 Muslim-friendly properties in some 50 cities across Indonesia and it has been growing at a triple-digit rate year-on-year.

“The food and drinks in our properties are halal-certified, and we provide Muslim-friendly amenities. Guests can immediately experience their stay in our Shariah-based properties, where hotel staff uniforms and attitudes conform to Islamic values. Moreover, we validate the marriage status when a couple is checking in,” Paramita said.

Shariah-compliant accommodation is not new in Indonesia. The Sofyan Hotel chain in Jakarta has implemented the concept in its two properties since 1992 by removing nightclubs, bars and alcoholic drinks from its facilities.

But the concept does not always appeal to all Muslims in Indonesia. University lecturer Ratna Djumala said she prefers to stay in a conventional hotel to show her children about meeting people of various backgrounds.

“I want to show my children about diversity and tolerance, especially this coming December when hotels are adorned with Christmas decorations. I want my kids to experience the ambiance, too. A family-friendly hotel doesn’t always have to be a Shariah-based one. What’s important for me is the food has to be halal,” she said.

Muslim-friendly travel was valued at $189 billion in 2018 and is estimated to reach $274 billion by 2024, according to the State of Global Islamic Economy Report 2019.

The story was first published in Arab News