Remembering Riyanto, the Muslim youth who sacrificed himself to save a church from a bomb on Christmas Eve

(Note: This feature was written in December 2016, but we hope its message remains just as  relevant today as it was then)

Between the massive protests against Jakarta Governor Ahok for his alleged blasphemy, the recent shutdown of a Christmas service in Bandung by religious extremists and the bombing of a church in November which led to the death of a 3-year-old child, some people feel like there is a growing wave of hate and intolerance in Indonesia that simply cannot be stopped.

Which is why we thought that now would be a good time to remember the story of Riyanto. About 16 years ago, the young Muslim man sacrificed himself to save a church filled with people who followed a different faith than his own. In doing so, he became a national hero and a symbol of what Indonesia’s creed of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) truly means.

In the chaotic years after the fall of Suharto, terrorist organizations were strong enough to perpetrate attacks throughout Indonesia. One of the most notorious of those attacks was when Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah planned widescale bombings at churches across the country on December 24, 2000.

Banser, a youth wing of Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has had a long standing tradition of having its members guard churches throughout Indonesia as a sign of goodwill towards their Christian brothers (a tradition they maintain still). One of those is the Eben Haezar Church in the town of Mojokerto, East Java.

Riyanto was one of four members of Banser who volunteered to safeguard Eben Haezar that night. He had turned 25-years-old about a month before.

Hundreds of people attended Christmas Eve services at Eben Haezar that night. At about 8:30pm, a parishioner noticed that a suspicious black package had been placed near the front of the church.

Eben Haezar Church in Mojokerto, East Java. Photo: Google

Riyanto went to check out the package and opened it up to find a sparking box covered in cables and wire.

At that moment, he must have realized it was a bomb. He could have dropped it and run, trying to save himself. He could have become paralyzed with fear.

Instead he yelled for the everybody else to get down and ran as fast as he could away from the crowded church, looking for a drainage ditch to throw the bomb into.

But before he could dispose of it, the bomb exploded in Riyanto’s hands. The power of the explosion sent his body flying over 100 meters and killed him instantly.

Bombs exploded in churches in nine Indonesian cities that night, killing 18 people. That number might have been much higher had it not been for Riyanto’s selfless actions.

For his sacrifice, Riyanto was hailed as a hero in headlines across Indonesia. A street was named after him in Mojokerto and a shrine to his memory, including his picture and the tattered remains of the shirt he wore that night, can be found at the NU museum in Surabaya.

The entrance to Jalan Riyanto in Mojokerto. Photo: Google Maps

President Gus Dur, a leader in NU and considered one of Indonesia’s strongest defenders of diversity, praised the hero of Mojokerto as a shining example of what Islamic values are truly about, saying “Riyanto has proven himself to be a religious man who was rich in humanity. I hope he earns the benefits of his sacrifice [in the afterlife].” The Wahid Institute, a foundation established by Gus Dur to promote tolerance, started a scholarship for underprivileged students in Riyanto’s name in 2008.

So the next time you feel depressed about the state of Indonesia and the seeming rise in intolerance, think about Riyanto and realize that there are still plenty of people like him in this country – people who care deeply about diversity and would not hesitate to help their fellow Indonesians no matter their faith or race.

This year, thousands of Banser members are following in Rikwanto’s footsteps by volunteering to protect churches throughout Indonesia.

And there are plentyof other examples as well, like the Muslim students who came to help clean up temples in Tanjung Balai after rioters attacked them.

And so many more. Acts of kindness and tolerance, courage and sacrifice, happen around us all the time. But we don’t often hear about it. Haters like to shout at the top of their lungs. Heroes just quietly do the right thing. So don’t lose hope in Indonesia, don’t let the haters shout us down. This country is filled with heroes fighting for a better future, you just have to look for them.

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