MUARA, Indonesia: Indonesia, the most populous country in the world, with a Muslim majority, seems an unlikely place for a party devoted to everything about pigs.
But last month, on the shores of Lake Toba in Sumatra, more than 1,000 people gathered to participate in pig races, selfies for pigs, and contests for pig calling and drawing. They also came to eat a local specialty, barbecued pork.
The party was more than a pig party. It was also a way for the larger Christian community in the region to block government-approved efforts to promote a conservative version of Islam throughout the country and in their home province.
In recent months, this trend toward religious conservatism has resulted in a national bill banning premarital sex and the election of a vice president who has already issued a fatwa against wearing Santa's hat. And this prompted the government to promote "halal tourism", consisting of holidays consisting of activities and food products authorized by Islamic law.
"Tourism is a matter of happiness. Tourism is synonymous with pleasure. Tourism is not about religion, "said Togu Simorangkir, a biologist and farmer, who had the idea of the pork festival.
This feeling puts Simorangkir at odds with government officials and some of his Muslim neighbors at a time when Lake Toba is trying to attract more attention.
Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world, is the historic center of the Batak Indian people, mostly Christian, and one of the largest minority groups in the country. But the government has also designated this region as one of the next hotspots for tourism in the country.
The government plans to boost tourism across the country by creating "10 balis" in hopes of replicating the island's success as a holiday destination.
Lake Toba is one of the main priorities of this program, but with only 231,000 foreign visitors in 2018, the region still has a long way to go. The government has built a new regional airport in 2017, but the capsizing of an overcrowded ferry that killed 188 people last year has not helped attract visitors.
Indonesia attracted a record number of foreign tourists in 2018. Of the 15.8 million visitors, the largest group came from Malaysia, also a predominantly Muslim country. The second largest group came from China, a country that loves pork, where Muslims are a minority.
Simorangkir and other Batak Christians said they disapproved of the government's plan to downplay their traditions, including eating pork, to please Muslim tourists.
Christian residents have claimed that Muslim leaders at the lake use the halal tourism mantle to promote discriminatory policies.
A Muslim leader called for a ban on eating pork in public and wearing a western swimsuit – especially women's swimsuits – except in designated areas.
"People who want to eat pork will be given a special place," said Halasan Simangunsong, head of the Al Hadhonah Mosque in Balige, on the lake. "For foreign tourists to do what they want, give them a special area."
Perhaps by chance, he runs a halal restaurant at Bul Bul Beach, nearby.
Some Batak fear that such restrictions on food and clothing apply not only to foreign visitors, but also to local Christians.
The pig is loaded with symbolism for Muslims and Christians, and each group has used the animal to defend their traditions.
For Muslims, who make up nearly 90 percent of the Indonesian population, it is forbidden to eat or even touch pigs. But for Batak Christians, pigs are part of everyday life and serving pork is an essential part of any important ceremony, from birth to death.
"The pig is a symbol of pride for the Batak people," said Ondi Siregar, tour guide at the Batak Museum in Balige, who is raising 20 pigs at his home. "In every ceremony, pork must be one of the offers."
Even today, many villagers live in traditional raised wooden houses with a space underneath for their pigs.
"All our life is tied to the pig," said M
artongo Sitinjak, leader of the Batak Protestant Church, one of the largest religious organizations in Indonesia. "It does not come from religion or Christian teachings. It comes from culture.
The plan to attract more Muslim visitors, particularly from neighboring Malaysia and Brunei, surfaced in August when the governor of North Sumatra Province, Edy Rahmayadi, a Muslim, proposed to build more mosques near the city. lake and put an end to the slaughter of pigs in public.
"If you do not build mosques there, they will not come," said the governor. "If you shoot pigs outdoors, they will come tomorrow, but they will not come back." – New York Times