Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Building Peace in Indonesia: Religion Is Both a Help and a Complication as Country Struggles with New Democracy. (Cover Story)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Building Peace in Indonesia: Religion Is Both a Help and a Complication as Country Struggles with New Democracy. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Ismartono's map of Indonesia is hard to see. The 17,000 islands of the sprawling archipelago stretch across one wall of the Crisis Center that the Jesuit priest runs for the Indonesian bishops' conference. Yet all the little pieces of paper he has tacked to the map, each sporting a number that denotes a violent conflict detailed in the center's file cabinets, end up covering almost all the land. Indonesia is reduced to clumps of yellow and white papers with stretches of water in between.

Ismartono--like many Indonesians, he has just one name--is a troubleshooter for the Indonesian church. As executive secretary of the bishops' commission on inter-religious dialogue, he ghostwrites pastoral letters about tolerance and, when those exhortations fail, oversees the church's response. When there's a conflict, he flies in and advises the local bishop on how to react. And with his wall map and files, he's keeping track of what is often described in the media as "religious violence," the communal fury that in recent years has reduced hundreds of churches and mosques to ashes and killed thousands of Indonesians.

Lest someone decide his files are too dangerous, he sends copies to be stored at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Such care for the past, Ismartono argues, is important in building a better future.

"I visited Dachau once, a monument to the victims. Yet in Indonesia we build monuments to the killers, and that tells people that killing is normal. I want to counteract that, by recording the names of the victims. But people are afraid of data, of information, and that creates a dangerous amnesia. If we lose our memory, we won't learn from past, and we'll be tempted to repeat the same thing in the future," Ismartono told NCR.

In many ways, Indonesia represents so many of the issues that play out across the globe: poverty amid riches; a search for order amid political instability; battles for land and power and resources that get wrapped up in religious garb; and the rise of fundamentalism that places extreme religious fervor at the service of political and territorial battles. If seemingly endless violence can breed a sense of futility, it also has, in Indonesia's case, generated some very creative efforts at peacemaking.

It's not about religion

The priest claims that religion is usually not the root of the violent conflicts that have plagued this Southeast Asian nation in recent years. Indeed, one of the first tasks Ismartono undertakes when he travels to a trouble spot is to help local folks, if they're still talking to each other, draw up a "conflict map" that aims to unveil the causes of the violence. In this complicated land, Ismartono and other peacemakers report, those other motives for killing are often numerous.

"It's never really about religion. It's a fight over power, or economics, or something else, and then those involved in the fight invoke religion. They use religion. But the conflict isn't about religion," Paulus Widjaja, a Mennonite pastor and director of the Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace at Duta Wacana Christian University in Jogjakarta, told NCR.

The well-televised images of burned worship buildings and beheaded bodies in places like Ambon, a city in the Moluccan Islands, would seem to belie that accusation. After a Muslim bicycle rider was struck and injured by a Christian bus driver in Ambon in January 1999, violent clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians. In the four years since, more than 5,000 people have died around Ambon, and 750,000 people have fled the area.

A provincial capital, Ambon had long been a Christian stronghold in this mostly Muslim nation, but Muslim migrants from the crowded island of Java arrived in steadily increasing numbers in recent decades. Muslims became the majority in some areas, leaving some Christians mourning the loss of religious hegemony. Tensions over land and control of local business grew. …

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