“In light of the recent threats on Christmas,” started the priest, “the church will begin using metal detectors at the entrance next week.”
The mass erupted in whispers.
“ISIS is mean,” my mother said, as if talking about the school bully.
Every year during Christmas in Indonesia, threats of Muslim radicals bombing Christian churches would begin to bubble up around newspapers and word of mouth, and every year we would ignore it. But this time it felt different. For the first time in over a decade, the threat had some substance.
During Christmas Eve of 2000, Al-Qaeda had coordinated bombings of churches in Jakarta and 8 other cities, so we knew that not every threat was empty. Although it’s been years since the last terrorist attack, the city took the warning with more than a grain of salt.
The most populated Muslim country in the world still has the lowest ISIS recruits for good reason; Indonesia remains a poster child for religious pluralism. The religious leaders around Indonesia—albeit radical in some aspects—would never dare crack one of the philosophical foundations of the country.
But sometimes people can go off tangent.
The massive 115 year-old Cathedral stood proudly across from the biggest mosque in Southeast Asia. That Christmas night, the two places of worship continued their admirable friendship. The Istiqlal mosque opened its parking area to the plethora of cars driven by Catholic families the same way the Cathedral opened its gates annually for their Muslim brothers and sisters during Ramadan. It was a tradition that continues to astound me to this day.
When I got out of my car the first person I saw was an army officer with a machine gun strapped to his back. Then a line of police officers filled my vision from one peripheral to another. They were dotting the perimeter of the Cathedral, helping us cross the street, and tunneling the line into the lone metal detector in the entrance of the church.
“Hello!” I greeted one. He smiled awkwardly and continued on with his stone-cold gaze.
After passing through the detector, there was an intensive bag check before we could enter the church. The entire parking lot of the Cathedral had been transformed into an outdoor seating area with large projectors showing the altar inside the main building.
My family and I snaked around the crowd of sweating bodies to find a seat but ended up choosing a place with a breeze instead. Fanning ourselves with the thin Christmas guidebook, the church began singing its solemn Latin hymns. We stood outside near the entrance, feeling the sporadic gusts of wind to save us from heatstroke.
Suddenly, as loud as can be, the loudspeaker from the mosque across from us began to awaken with a crackle. Then the booming Maghrib call of prayer erupted with its static beauty.
Allāhu akbar, Allāhu akbar.
I stifled a laugh as the church sang even louder. But still, our combined voices was no match for the rich timbre echoing the streets of central Jakarta.
Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā Allāh.
My family and I exchanged smiles as we looked over at the candy cotton skies outside. Hoards of men and women in hijabs and pecis began funneling into the mosque. Bored Catholic children were prancing outside the gates, waving at the Muslims opposite them. The armed security guards stood in silence, waiting to end their shift so they could perform the penultimate ṣalāh of the day.
I stood under the sunset, laughing to myself as our hymns intertwined with the minor Arabic tones like two people holding hands.
Allāhu akbar, they sung over and over again. God is great.
“Hallelujah,” I crooned, slipping in and out of my prayers in favor of listening to theirs.
By the end of Christmas mass, the Muslims across were starting to exit the mosque. There was a collision between two of the biggest religions in the world, mingling with each other on the busy streets of Jakarta. Some awaited their cars, some were hailing motorbike taxis. A new round of guards took their place around the Cathedral as an influx of churchgoers for the next mass started to accumulate outside the entrance.
Sometimes I forget the beauty and hilarity of coexisting.