The Indonesian government announced last month that it will stop using the Arabic term for Jesus Christ—Isa al Masih—when referring to Christian holidays and will instead use the Bahasa term Yesus Kristus beginning in 2024.
The change will alter the names of three national holidays: the Death of Isa al Masih (Good Friday), the Ascension of Isa al Masih, and the Birth of Isa al Masih (Christmas).
Many Christians are excited about the change as they have long used Yesus Kristus in their worship and everyday lives. They see the move as indicating that the Muslim-majority country is recognizing their terms and respecting Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population with 29 million believers.
Saiful Rahmat, deputy minister for religious affairs, noted that Indonesian Christians requested the name change.
“All of the Christians in Indonesia are supporting this [change] to show that our reference to Isa al Masih in the calendar year actually refers to Jesus Christ,” said Budi Santoso, director of Kartidaya (Wycliffe Indonesia). He and other Christian leaders noted the importance of the name change, as it would differentiate the Jesus Christians worship from the description of Isa in the Quran, where he is seen as merely a prophet.
Yet some believers fear the change could be the beginning of increased legislation over the terms Christians are allowed to use in Indonesia, leading to problems like Malaysia’s former ban preventing non-Muslims from referring to God as Allah (the ban was later struck down after a protracted legal battle).
They worry that if Indonesia goes on to ban the term Isa al Masih, this could hurt contextualized ministry to Muslims, as the connection between Isa in the Quran and the Bible is often a gateway into deeper conversation.
Religious harmony in Indonesia
While Muslims make up 87 percent of the Indonesian population, Islam is not the country’s official religion. Instead, Indonesia highly values religious harmony, encapsulated in a state philosophy known as Pancasila, and its Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
For both Muslim and Christian Indonesians, Allah has been used as the word for God for centuries. The Arabic word first spread to Southeast Asia in the 1100s as Muslim sultanates were established, and then was incorporated into the Malay language family, which includes Malaysian and Indonesian.
Many other Arabic words have been absorbed into Bahasa Indonesian and are commonly used by Christians, such as Alkitab for “Bible,” Injil for “Gospels,” and jemaat for “congregation.” A local ministry leader, who asked not to be named for security reasons, noted that “everyone uses the same term but applies different meanings to it.”
The term Isa al Masih however, is much less commonly used. Historically, some of the earlier Bible translations into Malay (the lingua franca of the former Dutch East Indies), such as William Girdlestone Shellabear’s 1910 translation of the New Testament, used the term, according to Daud Soesilo of United Bible Societies.
Yet after Indonesia’s independence in 1945, Bahasa-language translations mostly used Jesus Kristus or Yesus Kristus. One exception was a 2000 publication of a New Testament adapted from Shellabear’s translation for the purpose of reaching those more familiar with Arabic names and terms, Soesilo said.
Outside of mission workers building bridges with Muslims, Isa al Masih is rarely used by Indonesian Christians, said Bedjo Lie, co-founder of the apologetic ministry Apologetika Indonesia.
He cheered the government’s decision to change how they refer to Christian holidays. “The decision signals the government’s respectful attitude toward Christians as the second-largest religious population in the country … and their religious vocabulary for their holidays.”
He noted that President Joko Widodo and the current minister of religious affairs are well-known for their effort to “protect and promote religious pluralism” in the country. Early this year, Widodo called on heads of provinces and districts to guarantee equal religious rights to people of all faiths after some Christians had been blocked from worshipping.
Some noted the move may have been made ahead of the February election as an effort to promote goodwill among Christians. Widodo’s second and final term is ending, causing a swell of uncertainty for Christians as to how committed the new president and legislature will be to protecting their rights. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 64 percent of Muslims say sharia should be used as the law of the land.
Lie believes the name change also signals an “increasing theological literacy among Indonesian Christians and Muslims.” He pointed to the proliferation of online resources in the Indonesian language that has helped people have a “deeper understanding and appreciation of the theological differences between the Islamic Isa and the biblical Jesus.”
The Muslim understanding of Isa al Masih rejects the central tenets of the gospel—the divinity, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Lie said. “While the Quran and Islamic traditions … speak favorably about Isa, the Islamic narrative puts him under the shadows of Muhammad as the last and universal prophet.”
Fears of further legislation
While Indonesia is a secular state with six formal religions, in Malaysia, Islam is the official religion. With Muslims making up 63 percent of the population, the country practices a dual legal system of civil and sharia courts. (Sharia law only pertains to Muslims and covers family and personal law.)
In 1986 the Malaysian government banned the term Allah for non-Muslims to avoid confusion that may lead Muslims to convert to other religions. Two court cases were fought against the law for more than a decade, with the high court finally overturning the policy in 2021, calling it “illegal and unconstitutional.”
Some Christians fear that Indonesia’s move to change the name of Jesus could lead to a similar situation.
“The issue regarding the name of Jesus in Indonesia concerns us vigilantly: We would not want it to take the turn it took in Malaysia, that is, to turn into a ban aimed at Indonesian Christians to use the term Isa al Masih,” Catholic bishop Vitus Rubianto Solichin, who is based in Sumatra, told Fides news agency. “The important thing is to maintain and ensure freedom for all also in language.”
A number of senior evangelical leaders are also concerned the name change could be the first step toward the Indonesian government further legislating the words Christians can and can’t use, according to a missionary who has taught in Indonesian Bible schools for many years (he asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic).
The leaders noted that removing the term Isa al Masih breaks off Indonesian Christians’ solidarity with other Christian communities living in Muslim-majority areas in North Africa and the Middle East who also use the same term. Indonesia is one of the few countries where Muslims and Christians live together with mostly equal rights, which is frequently held up as a model for other nations.
If the government were to completely ban the term Isa al Masih, this would have an immediate impact on denominations (known as “synods” in Indonesia) that use the Arabic name of Jesus in its name, such as Gereja Isa al Masih, the Church of Jesus Christ. It would also impact traditional Bible translations, including the aforementioned Shellabear translation. Several new translations currently in progress also seek to preserve this title, according to the missionary, which maintains the connection between the historical figure of Isa mentioned in the Quran and Jesus in the Bible.
“Breaking that tie undermines interfaith dialogue and the perception of the public that we are talking about the same person,” he said.
He noted that many Muslim leaders are concerned about the effectiveness of contextualized evangelism in converting Muslims to Christianity. Banning the use of Arabic terms like Isa al Masih is thus seen as a way to protect their faith. Yet Christians fear this would undermine Pancasila, push back some of the positive steps the government has taken on religious liberties, and lead to potential human rights abuses.
Lie has also heard of some of these concerns from Christian missiologists and missionaries. Yet he doesn’t envision the current change leading to more draconic measures and thinks that believers from Muslim backgrounds will be able to continue using Isa in their “contextual Bible, liturgy, and conversation.”
“The government only changes the names of Christian holidays, and so far, I do not foresee any further policy planned,” Lie said.