In Indonesia, Catholics Feel the Pressure

Jean-Christian Dhavernas, of Aid to the Church in Need, Surveys the Scene

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KONIGSTEIN, Germany, JULY 17, 2002 ( Indonesia, once a model of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, has suffered serious tensions in recent years in some regions.

In this interview, Jean-Christian Dhavernas, who heads the Far East section of the Catholic association Aid to the Church in Need, explains the situation.

Q: You recently visited three regions of Indonesia: the Moluccas, Celebes Island and East Timor. What was the reason for your trip?

Dhavernas: It had been a long time since we had visited this Asian church because trips to countries where an anti-clerical position prevails are a priority.

However, in recent years increasing tension has been noted in Indonesia between different ethnic and religious groups; moreover, there are separatist tendencies that are challenging the country’s political unity as happens, for example, in the regions of Aceh, Irian Jaya and the Moluccas.

At present Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, is also registering a growing influence of radical Islamism, in whose name some groups take recourse to violence, as happened in the Bali attacks last year.

Q: What is the situation of Catholics in Indonesia?

Dhavernas: The Catholic Church in Indonesia is experiencing a situation that is similar to that of the majority of Asian countries: It represents only a small minority, specifically, some 6.5 million believers is a country of some 221 million inhabitants.

This minority is made up in good measure of believers of Chinese origin, especially in the villages. The resentment harbored by many Indonesians toward this Chinese minority, which controls large sectors of the country’s economy, does not facilitate coexistence. The 1997 attacks against members of the Chinese minority also had negative repercussion on quite a few Christian communities.

Q: Can one speak of a «persecution» of the Church in Indonesia?

Dhavernas: I have asked some bishops that very question. According to them, the word «persecution» is inappropriate, despite some worrying incidents noted in recent years. During Christmas 2000, 17 people died as a result of bomb attacks perpetrated against several churches, and, to give another example, last year there were cases of forced conversion in some of the Molucca Islands.

Fortunately, these are isolated cases and what is important is to understand that, in the majority of cases, the apparent conflicts between religious communities have, in fact, a socioeconomic origin.

Given that religious borders usually coincide with ethnic or socioeconomic borders, in cases of conflict, recourse is taken too rapidly to justifications of a religious character, and this is taken advantage of by those who wish to fuel the fire, among whom there are, also, foreign groups.

Q: Why do schools play such an important role?

Dhavernas: In countries that have a large Muslim majority, the Church can only carry out its evangelizing mission in institutions such as schools, hospitals, etc. Thus, the Church in Indonesia manages more than 4,500 educational centers and 600 socio-charitable works. Any attempt at direct evangelization, such as that carried out by Protestants, only awakens greater animosity.

Apart from the fact that, thanks to the acknowledged quality of their teaching, the schools make a great contribution to the formation of the country’s leaders. These institutions are one of the few places in which the Church can live and give witness with what is proper to it. Moreover, they are places where vocations arise and develop.

Q: Are there vocations?

Dhavernas: At present, some 1,300 seminarians are preparing for the priesthood. If we consider that there are already 3,000 priests for 6.5 million believers, we can have an idea of the dynamism of the Church.

Vocations are, therefore, very numerous, both priestly as well as religious. But the demand is also very great due, above all, to the geographic dispersion of the Christian communities. Thus, for example, the Diocese of Amboina, in the Moluccas, is composed of 1,000 islands; to travel by plane from the north to the south entails a three-hour flight.

Q: How do you see the future of the Church in Indonesia?

Dhavernas: Humanly, insecurity reigns. The economy has still not recovered from the 1997 financial crisis, which has affected the standard of living of the greater part of the population and widened the gap between the social strata.

The political instability and preponderant role of the army in politics do not facilitate in any way the rise of a genuine democracy.

All this also has repercussions in the Church, although the latter can lean on the testimony of the evangelizers and the fervent faith of believers.

During the last days of my stay in his diocese, Bishop Peter Turang of Kupang told me: «If we keep our confidence in the Word of Jesus, we do not have to worry. What matters is that the Church be humble in its mission and in its relations with other religions.»

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