Obama seen as a sign of hope by Indonesian religious leaders

By Ecumenical News International
July 28, 2008

An Indonesian religious leader has told a visiting World Council of Churches delegation that Christians in his country see the US Democratic Party presidential candidate, Barack Obama, as a sign of hope - writes Maurice Malanes.

"We are praying for Obama because we feel he can help reduce the widespread stigma and misperception that Muslims in Indonesia are fundamentalists," said the Rev. Ishak Pule, chairperson of the Christian Church of Central Sulawesi synod.

Pule was speaking on 19 July as he met members of a WCC group known as a Living Letters team during its visit to communities in the Christian-dominated town of Tentena, an eight-hour drive from the Central Sulawesi provincial capital of Palu.

"We in the synod actually communicate more easily with Muslims than with Christian fundamentalists," added Pule, who also invited three Muslim leaders to meet the Living Letters team at his Tentena office.

Other Indonesian church leaders present at the meeting told Ecumenical News International they saw Obama as "a ray of hope for global unity" in a world where such unity appeared to have been threatened since the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001.

Pule and his synod's leadership, along with Muslim leaders in Central Sulawesi, initiated local peace-building and dialogue efforts after a series of attacks and killings erupted in 2000 in the Muslim-dominated district of Poso.

Reports say a brawl back then between two youths, one a Christian and the other a Muslim, triggered violence that resulted in the death of hundreds of followers of both faiths, The conflict also pushed 50 000 refugees from Poso into the Christian-majority town of Tentena.

Pule and Muslim leaders say the situation normalised after the government arrested the leaders of the fighting and reined in a radical group known as Laskar Jihad, who Pule and his Muslim colleagues described as "outsiders" who helped fan the conflict.

Although 210 families remain as refugees in Tentena, the situation is said to be calm, and Christian and Muslim leaders have begun renewing ties between the two faiths by embarking on peace-making projects at the grass roots level.

The synod chairperson explained that conflicts often arose because of a lack of understanding by Christians about Islam, and Muslims about Christianity. This can lead to general Islamophobia on the part of Christians, Pule said, and he believed that someone like Obama could help bring Muslims and Christians worldwide to a better and closer mutual understanding.

The director general for information in Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs, Andri Hadi, shares Pule's views.

"Please extend our best wishes and regards to Obama," Hadi told the Rev. Vanessa Sharp of the Presbyterian Church of the USA, when she and other members of her team met the government official on 23 July to tell him of their experiences in conflict-ridden communities they had visited from 18-22 July.

Hadi told the team that many Indonesians felt a close affinity with Obama because he had attended primary school in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which is the country with the world's biggest Muslim population.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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