Indonesia's Jews Mark Passover in Low Key Celebration

Indonesia's practicing Jews, thought to number less than 200, hope that interfaith events like the one in Jakarta which marked Passover, will help them gain an equal footing in the Muslim majority nation.

Indonesian Jews take part in a Passover seder, April 2016.
Screengrab Reuters video

Jews in Indonesia commemorated Passover on Friday, in a low-key celebration which they said aimed to promote peace and harmony among religions.

Nearly 50 people attended the evening celebration in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to mark the beginning of Passover, a day to commemorate the flight of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, with a ritual known as Seder.

The celebration was joined by Muslim clerics and United States Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"Men and women of different faiths gathered to celebrate an ancient Jewish tradition here in the Muslim majority country is a very powerful thing," said Blinken upon arrival.

Indonesia recognises six religions officially: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Judaism is not one of them.

Many of the believers are Jewish descendants of Dutch or Iraqi migrants who came to the country in the 1920s. A study by the non-government organisation Eitz Chaim (Tree of Life) Mevaserim Center showed there're only less than 200 believers in Indonesia currently.

In a country where religion is spelt out on every citizen's identity card, most of the Jews in the country have to hide their religious identity under the name of "Christian".

"We hope the government takes this seriously as it is our right as others. We want to be equal. This is our identity, we need to have a faith because this is the basic human right, and our right to connect with God," said Yunaes Senggi, who travelled 4000 kilometres from far east Indonesia's Papua province to join the ceremony for the first time.

Jews in Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim nation, were reportedly attacked by Muslims in the past in places where anti-Semitism sentiment is high, forcing believers to practise their faith underground.

The country's last synagogue was demolished in 2013 after being sealed of by Islamic hard-liners. It is unclear who the perpetrators were.

Elisheva Wiriaatmadja, who established the Eitz Chaim (Tree of Life) Mevaserim Center to help promote understanding of Judaism in Indonesia, said the cause of misunderstanding of the religion is lack of interaction.

"When they (the Indonesian Muslims) said I hate Jews, Israel, you can't really judge them because they don't actually have met any Jewish at all, many of Indonesians the vast majority have not," said Wiriaatmadja.

This is not the first time believers have gathered together to celebrate Passover, but it was the first time Muslim clerics have broken Jewish Matzah bread with Jews in Hamotzi (blessing) ceremony.

Cleric Zawawi Suat said all religions should avoid threatening others' rights to practise their beliefs.

"All religions in the world are seeking peace. Peace, according to the 1945 Constitution (of Indonesia) which stated that true freedom is the right of all nationals, therefore we should avoid any means of threat to one another," said Suat, the secretary general of NGO, Indonesia's Preachers Association.

The 15-step traditional ritual where believers sang prayers, drank four cups of wine (substituted with grape juice), ate bitter herbs and enjoyed a feast together lasted three hours.

Passover is due to end on April 30.