The Church Encounters Islam in Indonesia and Good Things Happen

Jesuit Priest Says Catholics Enjoy Better Relations With Muslims

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Indonesia is a country of superlatives: it is comprised of more than 17,000 islands, extends across more than 3,000 miles and has a population of close to 250 million. The main islands or groups of islands are Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and the Moluccas. The nation is home to 300 different ethnic groups, mostly Malays.

There is also a clear majority when it comes to religious adherence: according to the 2010 census, 87.2 percent are Muslim, 9.9 percent Christian—one-third of them Catholics—1.7 percent Hindus and 0.7 percent Buddhists.

In fact, Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world! Thus far, the country has also been an example of Muslim moderation. According to Jesuit Father Franz Magnis-Suseno, a philosopher, Indonesia is «probably the only country with an Islamic majority in which Muslims can be baptized.»

The constitution of the Republic of Indonesia guarantees religious freedom. The officially recognized religions are Islam, Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism), Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Father Magnis-Suseno—born in Silesia in 1936, has lived in Indonesia since 1961 and in 1977 took on the Indonesian nationality—recently told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: «In Indonesia, Islam varies quite considerably in its intensity and orientation. There are extreme forms, but mainstream Islam tends to be moderate and pluralistic; in other words it is recognizes that other religions exist in the country.»

The Jesuit priest believes that making a constant effort to maintain good relations with moderate Muslims is absolutely essential for Indonesia’s 25 million Christians: «When you want to build a church, good «neighbourliness» is just as important as it is in critical situation. In my estimation, Catholics enjoy better relations with Muslims than Christians of other denominations because we are ethnically more diverse and hence rooted in the locality.

“But it’s necessary to work actively to establish good relations with Muslim personalities. I am always saying to our pastors, ‘devote at least 10 percent of your time to getting into conversation with your Muslim neighbors.»

The number of Catholics, which the Jesuit estimates at 8 million, is growing, he claims, as is the number of Catholic priests: «The churches are full and the quality of the indigenous clergy is high.» The reasons for this is, among other things, the comprehensive training which Catholic colleges offer in Indonesia—institutions that also welcome Muslim students.

Magnis-Suseno, who has himself taught philosophy and other subjects, said: «In philosophy, in the Master’s and doctorate program at the ‘Driyarkara School of Philosophy’ in Jakarta, about a quarter of the students are Muslims. For them—as for Catholics—the principle applies that someone who wishes to be religious is also allowed to think. The idea is to dispel fears, ask questions and then answer them. For many Muslims, this approach is a liberating experience and it leads to an open Islam.»

The country’s future as a democracy also looks bright. Father Magnis-Suseno praised Indonesia’s democratic development since the resignation of the long-standing dictator Suharto in May 1998 as «a really great achievement.” In July 2014 Joko Wikodo, after a tough election battle, was elected president. Magnis-Suseno described him as «a Javanese moderate Muslim who does not hail from the old elites and is seen as a man of the people.”

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Reinhard Backes

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