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In Indonesia, Practicing Religious Tolerance One Dirty Floor At A Time

A group of young people of all religious backgrounds are living proof of religious tolerance, as they volunteer to clean Jakarta houses of worship, whether they be Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.

Members of the berhati group cleaning up a Vihara in Jakarta.
Members of the berhati group cleaning up a Vihara in Jakarta.
Danu Mahardika

JAKARTA — Indonesia is often praised for its religious tolerance and diversity. But recent developments such as churches being banned and minority groups being attacked reveal a darker side of Indonesian society that a group of young people in Jakarta is trying to change.

At a Buddhist temple, or Vihara, in West Jakarta, monks are praying in front of the altar. In the corner is a giant statue of Buddha surrounded by red candles. A group of young people recently visited the area on a mission to clean up the temple.

The group is called "Berhati," an Indonesian acronym that translates as "cleaning up places of worship, cleaning your soul."

The group's leader, 23-year-old Agustinus Ardi Widiatmoko, says that the volunteers don't want anything in return. "We're not a social organization," he says. "We can't donate anything, but we want to clean the place. It's simple: We come, clean, then go home."

Vihara head Yusak Li Saputra was surprised when the group arrived. "We just gave them some snacks and drinks, and they immediately started working," he says. "Even if we hadn't given them anything, they would've done it. They said they were happy to be welcomed so warmly here. We don't have many cleaning staff, and all of them are women. They can't climb up high like these young people did."

But that's not what impressed Saputra the most. "Not all of them are Buddhist," he notes. "Some of them are Muslims. There's a mix of people. They have taught us to respect each other's place of worship, and they are not religious fanatics. They just came here and cleaned up."

The Berhati group also visits mosques, Hindu temples and churches such as the Cathedral, the oldest and largest Catholic Church in the capital.

Resti Nainggolan, a member of the church staff, still has the gift the group gave her after they cleaned the church. "They gave us some T-shirts with the Berhati logo on the front," she says. "I asked them, "Why are you giving us gifts like this? You've already cleaned the place? Then they said, "It's a gift, nothing more. No hidden agendas.""

Photo: Berhati

Stephani Yuliana, a 22-year-old university student, joined the group three months ago. Since then, she regularly joins the clean-ups in various places of worship. "For me the group has a strong element of tolerance and togetherness," Yuliana says. "This group is universal. You're not here because of your ethnicity or religion. That's why I joined. And we can also cleanse our soul by cleaning up places of worship."

On the side of angels

Since it was formed last year, the group has so far cleaned up more than 150 places of worship in and around Jakarta. Widiatmoko, who also serves as the group's community coordinator, says that there are about 80 members — and that people often join on the spot when they're working somewhere. "Some of them even ask us to let them know of any upcoming cleaning events," he says. "We, the young generation, are willing to help. There are many mosques and churches here that need our attention."

One such on-the-spot recruit is 23-year-old Anugrah Pandu Satrio, who works in an ad agency. "There was a cleaning event in a mosque, near my house," Pandu says. "I was curious to know what were they doing. I joined them and asked some questions and became very interested in their mission."

Every two weeks the group members go to different houses of worship. "We split up," Widiatmoko says. "Muslims can clean churches, while Catholics can clean Hindu temples. We don't decide which house of worship to clean based on people's religion. We want to show how we can be tolerant of each other's religions. We want to set an example for others."

But things aren't always easy for them. "Some people ask us which party or company we are working for," Pandu says. "We understand that they might be afraid of potential consequences. But we stay positive. If they don't accept us, then we look for other places. What’s important is that we've offered to clean the place. It's their decision to accept us or not."

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received the World Statesman Award this year for promoting religious freedom. But the reality is that there have been recent cases of churches being banned and minority groups being attacked.

Many say the country is failing to protect its citizens' religious freedom. But for Pandu, the Berhati group has been a real eye-opener. "I'm a Muslim. I went to Islamic schools. I also went to an Islamic university. But with this community, I've learned not to see people based on their religion or ethnicity."

Simple actions like these can help to restore religious harmony in Indonesia, Nainggolan says. "We need to encourage tolerance with small steps. This way we don't have to feel awkward about entering other people's house of worship. We have to get rid of negative perceptions between religions and encourage tolerance from an early age."

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