Binding Indonesia's religious wounds

By Maurice Malanes
24 Jul 2008

The concrete wall behind the altar of the Christian Church of Central Sulawesi in Palu, Indonesia still bears marks from two bullets just three inches to the right of a framed cross-stitch portrait of Jesus Christ.

Four years ago, on 18 July 2004, the two bullets were among those fired from an assassin’s automatic rifle which ended the life of Rev. Susianti Tinulele, who had just finished preaching during an evening worship service. Tinulele, 28, was one of a growing number of women pastors in Indonesia.

The death of Tinulele and another pastor formed part of a wave of violence and killing which erupted in 2000 in the Muslim-dominated Central Sulawesi district of Poso. Reports say a brawl between a Christian and a Muslim youth triggered the violence.

In the anti-Christian attacks that followed, people were killed and homes were destroyed. So-called Christian "Black Bat" raiders retaliated in May 2000, killing hundreds of Muslims.

The violence further intensified when the armed Laskar Jihad in August 2001 declared jihad or "holy war" and dispatched fighters to Poso. The radical group provided Muslim paramilitary troops with AK-47s, grenade and rocket launchers, bulldozers and tanker trucks and launched "a scorched-earth campaign", destroying dozens of Christian villages and pushing 50,000 refugees into the Christian majority lakeside town of Tentena, reports the International Crisis Group.

In July 2008 a "Living Letters" group from the World Council of Churches (WCC) is visiting the region to learn about the situation and how the Christian and Muslim communities have worked toward peace.

The Living Letters teams travel to locations around the world where Christians strive to overcome violence and encourage the church and local leaders to promote peaceful means of resolving differences. The teams are traveling in advance of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation to be held in Jamaica in May 2011.

Leaders and members of Tinulele’s church in this capital city of Central Sulawesi still mourn the loss of their beloved pastor. But they see a "greater message" from that evening's tragedy – how to live their faith in Christ despite all violence.

That message must have something to do with "how we could practice our discipleship" because what happened "couldn’t even compare to the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross," says Desyiranti Tengkende in a written testimony.

Tengkende, who was only a ten-year old girl then, lost an eye during that fateful evening. She was among four injured during that shooting by a masked sniper positioned at the main door of the church. The church was filled with more than 500 mostly young parishioners. The assassin was accompanied by three other men who all fled on two motorcycles after the incident.

In her testimony in Bahasa she shares how, by further strengthening her faith, she overcame the trauma she suffered.

"The death of Susianti strengthened us to move forward and serve others, replacing our hatred, anger and fear with love and compassion to build brotherhood and sisterhood among us," says the Rev Jetroson Rense, the church’s current pastor.

Rita Aryani Kupa shares Rense’s spirit of forgiveness and Tengkende’s leap of faith. "It’s through God’s grace and guidance that I have learned to cope with that tragedy," says Kupa in an interview.

Kupa, mother of three, is referring to another tragedy – the 26 October 2006 assassination of her husband, Rev. Irianto Kongkoli, the then Synod general secretary of the Christian Church in Central Sulawesi, two years after Tinulele’s killing.

Kupa, a policewoman, sees hope in her three children, two of whom have chosen to follow in the footsteps of their late father by enrolling in seminary.

"I have to stretch my salary as a policewoman because the Synod has no funds to pay for the pension of my late husband, but with God’s help my eldest son will be graduating in a year or so," she says.

Rebuilding ties

The violence in Central Sulawesi essentially had run its course before the government authorities intervened, notes the International Crisis Group. Authorities did not try to suppress the well-armed Laskar Jihad and other irregular forces but sought to mediate an agreement between the combatants.

In January 2007, the police launched operations, reportedly driving away teachers of radical Islam in Poso who came from Java, and arresting perpetrators of jihad-related crimes without any backlash, at least up to this time.

With the relative peace in Poso, Christian and Muslim leaders have sought to pick up the pieces from the rubble of the conflict by renewing ties, establishing dialogues and rebuilding what they said was a long tradition of cooperation between members of the two faith communities.

"The conflict has challenged us to teach young Christians to learn and understand more about Islam in order to avoid Islamophobia (fear of Islam)," says Rev. Ishak Pule, first chairman of the Christian Church of Central Sulawesi Synod. "It is this lack of understanding that separates us from one another."

Pule met last 19 July 2008 with members of the Living Letters team sent to Indonesia by the World Council of Churches at his office in Tentena by the Lake Poso.

Pule reveals that after the conflict had subsided both Christian and Muslim leaders instituted what is called the Communication Forum for Religious Harmony which continually seeks to promote dialogue and understanding between the two faith communities.

"What happened in Poso was not an issue of religion. Unfortunately, some people have politicized religion, using it for the wrong purpose," says Abdul Malik Syahadat, a Muslim leader who now chairs the interfaith Communication Forum. "All people of Indonesia want to be safe and in peace. So let us now work towards peace and harmony."

Shahadat was among three Muslim leaders who met with the Living Letters team 19 July at Pule’s office.

Noting signs towards normalcy and stability in Poso, Haji Yahya Mangun, another Muslim leader and secretary of the Forum, says an immediate concern is how to convince those who left Poso to return and rebuild their lives.

That the number of police personnel dispatched to Poso has been reduced from 235 in 2003 to only 12 since 2006 indicates a trend toward normalization, says Mangun.

"We actually had a culture of working and living together and helping each other," he adds. He cites how Christians and Muslims would help each other in farm work and in religious feasts, sharing food together because Christians knew what types of food were appropriate for their Muslim brethren.

Mangun is among the Muslim leaders who seek to rekindle this history of cooperation between members of the faiths.

With such desire, and having instituted mechanisms for dialogue, the signs of tolerance and co-existence are evident in Tentena.

On 28 May 2005 someone bombed Tentena’s public market, killing 22 people, mostly Christians.

But last 20 July, a Sunday, members of the Living Letters team were awakened by the early morning prayer of a Muslim muezzin in a nearby mosque and a lively choir from a Christian church, all mixing it up with crowing roosters as the sun rose over Tentena.

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(c) Maurice Malanes is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. Currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI), he also writes for the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).

With acknowledgments to the World Council of Churches

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