Indonesia Wants ‘Halal Tourism.’ But Some Want to Wrestle Pigs.

MUARA, Indonesia — Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, seem an unlikely place for a party dedicated to all things pig.

But last month on the shores of Sumatra’s Lake Toba, more than 1,000 people gathered for pig races, pig selfies and contests devoted to calling pigs and drawing pigs. They also came to eat a local delicacy, barbecued pork.

The festival was more than just a celebration of pigs. It was also a way for the area’s large Christian community to push back at government-sanctioned efforts to promote a conservative version of Islam throughout the country and in their home province.

In recent months that trend toward religious conservatism has included a proposed national law that would outlaw premarital sex and the election of a vice president who once issued a fatwa against the wearing of Santa Claus hats. And it has prompted the government to promote “halal tourism,” vacations composed of activities and foods permissible under Islamic law.

“Tourism is about happiness. Tourism is about fun. Tourism is not about religion,” said Togu Simorangkir, a biologist and farmer, who came up with the idea for the Pig Festival.

That sentiment puts Mr. 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 world’s largest volcanic lake, is the historic center of Indonesia’s indigenous Batak people, most of whom are Christians, and they make up one of the country’s largest minority groups. But the area has also been designated by the government as one of the country’s next tourism hot spots.

The government plans to boost tourism nationwide by creating “10 Balis” in the hopes of replicating that island’s success as a holiday destination.

Lake Toba is one of that program’s top priorities, but with only 231,000 foreign visitors in 2018, the region has a long way to go. The government constructed a new regional airport in 2017, but the capsizing of an overloaded ferry that killed 188 people last year has not helped attract visitors.

Indonesia drew a record number of foreign tourists in 2018. Of the 15.8 million visitors, the single largest group was from Malaysia, also a Muslim-majority country. The second largest group was from pork-loving China, where Muslims are a minority.

Mr. Simorangkir and other Batak Christians said they resent the government’s plan to play down their traditions, which include eating pork, in order to pander to Muslim tourists.

Muslim leaders at the lake, Christian residents said, are using the mantle of halal tourism to push policies that are discriminatory.

One Muslim leader has called for bans on eating pork in public and wearing Western swimwear — especially women’s bathing suits — except in designated zones.

“For people who want to eat pork, they will be given a special place,” said Halasan Simangunsong, the head of Al Hadhonah mosque in the lakefront town of Balige. “For the foreign tourists to do what they want, give them a special zone.”

Perhaps coincidentally, he runs a halal restaurant at nearby Bul Bul Beach.

Such restrictions on food and clothing, some Batak people fear, would apply not only to foreign visitors but local Christians as well.

The pig is freighted with symbolism for both Muslims and Christians, and each group has used the animal to advocate for their traditions.

For Muslims, who make up nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s population, eating or even touching pigs is considered haram — forbidden. But for Batak Christians, pigs are a part of everyday life, and serving pork is an essential part of every important ceremony, from birth to death.

“The pig is a symbol of pride for Batak people,” said Ondi Siregar, a tour guide at the Batak Museum in Balige who raises 20 pigs at home. “In every ceremony, pork has to be one of the offerings.”

Even today, many villagers live in traditional raised wooden houses with space underneath for their pigs.

“Our whole life is connected with the pig,” said Martongo Sitinjak, a leader of the Batak Protestant Church, one of Indonesia’s largest religious organizations. “It is not coming from religion or Christian teachings. It is coming from the 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 building more mosques near the lake and ending the slaughtering of pigs in public.

“If you don’t build mosques there, they won’t come,” the governor said at the time. “If you slaughter pigs outdoors, they may come tomorrow, but they won’t come again.”

When widespread condemnation of the governor’s remarks spread online among his Christian constituents, Mr. Edy insisted he had never called for halal tourism.

The highlight of the two-day Pig Festival was a pig catching contest. In six rounds of competition, groups of blindfolded men and boys piled into a small coral and tried to capture a piglet. The game was similar to greased pig contests at American rodeos and county fairs, but the blindfolds added an extra dimension of slapstick comedy.

Hundreds of people crowded around the enclosure, laughing uproariously at each missed tackle as three little pigs scooted past the diving contestants. More than once, a man grabbed for a pig only to end up rolling on the ground with a competitor, prompting even more laughter.

Early on, a small black pig slipped out of the split-bamboo enclosure, raced past a barbecued pig on a spit, jumped into Lake Toba and swam away.

Mr. Simorangkir, the pig festival’s organizer, said it was not pork that was deterring tourists, but environmental destruction.

With the central government’s permission, he said, companies from outside the area have logged the lake’s surrounding forests and set up vast fish farming operations that have polluted the lake, once famous for its clear waters.

“If they want to increase the tourism at Lake Toba, don’t put on the label of halal tourism,” Mr. Simorangkir said. “Just close the companies that destroy the Lake Toba environment.”

Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting.