GANDHI AJENG ANAMPIANI Princess Elisabeth, Ajeng, is a 17-year-old Catholic teenager, who, on a daily basis, experiences in dramatic fashion what it’s like to be a Christian in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. She attends a public high school in her hometown of Bekasi, West Java, Indonesia: of the school’s 1200 students, only 24 are Catholic—and she is the only Catholic in her class of 40. However, in the country’s public school system there is religious education provided according to students’ particular faith; each Friday, Ajeng attends a class devoted to Catholicism. Ajeng believes friendship is key to interfaith harmony:
“Every day, I go through the routine like any other student. Class begins with a prayer in the Islamic way; I use that time to pray the Our Father silently; I also use the time to honor friends who belong to other religions—as they pray Islamic prayers, I say a Hail Mary. I keep praying and try to offer my daily life to God.
“In class, every teacher sees me like they see the other children. I never get unfair treatment. Last year, I was asked to represent the school to take part in an English competition at another school. As a Catholic, I felt particularly proud of this opportunity.
“Six friends who often run out together with me to go somewhere are all Muslims. I am the only one who is Catholic. But I do not feel any different. We are equal. Recently, I attended a birthday party for my Muslim friend Dara at her home. I met her parents and also some of her relatives. They welcomed me kindly. We talked freely even though they saw me not wearing the hijab like my other friends.
“Several times when I went to the mall with my six friends, I also was the only girl who did not wear the hijab. I do not feel strange; it has become common in our friendship. I respect the faith of my friends, as they have respect for my faith. When in the mall, they asked me to take care of their bags, while they went to pray in one of the small mosques.”
However, there are some clear challenges for Indonesian Catholics. For example, the neighborhood where Ajeng lives is part of the parish of Santa Clara, which belongs to the Archdiocese of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. It took local faithful a long time to get municipal authorities to grant a permit for the construction of a parish church; some local Muslim groups have demonstrated against it.
“Santa Clara Parish is renting three storefronts. We call it the Beautiful Chapel. It is where Mass is celebrated and where we pray the rosary, though the place isn’t ideal for prayer. It is also the space for various activities for children and youth; there are also some other Christian denominations that every Sunday hold services at the same time in this shopping complex.”
“I am happy to live my life as a young Catholic. Although we are a minority—with people around us who are all Muslims—we can live together. I know that there are certain people who do not like the presence of us as Catholics, such as those who oppose the construction of our parish church. However, I believe most people are prepared to live side by side as brothers and sisters.”
—Antonius Eko Sugiyanto
Antonius Eko Sugiyanto writes for Aid to the Church in Need, an international papal charity providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org(UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)