ASIA/INDONESIA - After the conflict, the fruitful period of forgiveness and coexistence in the Moluccas

Saturday, 24 February 2024 dialogue   missionaries   mission  

By Paolo Affatato

Ambon (Agenzia Fides) - The time of civil conflicts, the time of confrontation between Christian and Muslim communities is only a distant memory.
From 1999 to 2002, the islands were marked by inter-religious violence. Monsignor Seno Ngutra, Bishop of Amboina, in Ambon, the capital of the Moluccas Province in eastern Indonesia - an area touched by the Mission of St. Francis Xavier - can today report that "we have crossed the desert of inter-religious conflict,
but now in this desert the flowers of mutual acceptance, coexistence and forgiveness have arisen".
Currently, he says, "we maintain good relations with other religious communities, both at the level of leaders and among ordinary people."
The Bishop appointed in 2021 can testify to this after visiting the different islands (there are about 50 in his diocese, with 56 parishes), some with a Muslim majority, others with a Christian majority. "There is harmony between Christians and Muslims - and also with Hindus and Buddhists. There is a dialogue based on mutual forgiveness. We have learned the lesson from the past when a spark of violence triggered a painful civil war", he explains, having directly experienced this period. Today the Bishop organizes inter-religious meetings "both for adults and children, who come together, dance and play, make friends, this is the good seed of coexistence".
"The secret - he adds - is everyday life together; it is about not building fences or ghettos in the villages" in order to "sow friendship every day and avoid any form of hostility." "We have learned to always recognize the other as a human being, deserving of mercy, from recognizing him as a brother or sister, as a person to be loved", he says. "On this basis, peace was built in the Moluccas; on this basis we experience mutual forgiveness, the dynamic that ended the war in the Moluccas. From forgiveness comes something 'new', which in our case has brought the joy of brotherhood".
"On the path of coexistence - he notes - the teachings of Pope Francis have proven very useful, which we try to apply in our context, encouraging dialogue and not proselytism. For example, we have one Catholic church and three primary schools on an island with a Muslim majority and only 4% of the population is Catholic. The students in the three schools are 99% Muslim. Muslim children and families have great respect for their faith. This respect arouses in them gratitude towards us". There is also a Catholic school on another island with an animist population". "It was a gift for these people, and some families asked to baptize their children, in complete freedom", he notes, specifying that the diocesan community manages more than a hundred schools. The mission, explains the bishop, "often involves commitment to education, which means proximity with people: it is a form of charity".
On the islands there are also "mission stations", small chapels where a priest regularly travels by boat. "From there, interest in the faith and conversions can arise," he notes, praising the work of the volunteer catechists, men and women, who help the priests and deacons, especially on the more distant islands.
Portuguese and Spanish missionaries landed in the Moluccas in 1534, when the first baptism was performed in Ternate, in the north of the archipelago. From then on, the Catholic faith spread, from 1546 also thanks to the work of the Spanish missionary Francis Xavier. It is estimated that in 1558 there were around 10,000 Catholics on Ambon and the surrounding islands. After the Dutch took control of the islands in the early 17th century, Protestantism grew rapidly.
In the 20th century, the Apostolic Vicariate of Amboina was founded, which was elevated to the status of a diocese in the 1960s and now has around 115,000 Catholics out of a population of 3.2 million. The diocese of Amboina had to face a serious crisis when a social conflict broke out on January 19, 1999, which soon took on the religious coloring of an Islamic-Christian conflict. Buildings and houses, about 80 churches, monasteries, several schools, hospitals and Catholic institutions were damaged. The conflict officially ended with the so-called “Malino” agreement of February 2002. There were around 15,000 dead and over 500,000 displaced. In June 2003, a reconciliation ceremony was held in the capital Ambon, in the presence of several local religious leaders, in front of thousands of faithful, strongly desired and encouraged by the then-Catholic Bishop of Amboina, Petrus Canisius Mandagi. (Agenzia Fides, 24/2/2024)