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

The 20th anniversary of the Bali terrorist bombings in October was a painful reminder of Indonesia’s fight against extremism, a struggle that continues still. But there’s another important anniversary to remember today, about the sacrifice of an Indonesian who died upholding the ideals of pluralism that hold Indonesia together.

Twenty-two years ago today, a 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 Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) truly means.

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

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

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

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

Eben Haezer Church in Mojokerto, East Java. Photo: Google Maps

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 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 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.

Riyanto’s sacrifice is remembered each year in church services and ceremonies at his gravesite where people remember him as a hero who upheld Indonesia and Islam’s highest values.

So the next time you feel depressed about the state of Indonesia and the seeming rise in intolerance, think about Riyanto and have faith that there are still plenty of people like him in this country willing to put their lives on the line to uphold Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. This year, around 200,000 Banser members, along with around 100,000 police personnel, are working to protect Christmas and New Year’s masses at churches across Indonesia.



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