As in Papuan society, so also in churches, there are members who opine that the western part of New Guinea has the right to be an independent state. There are also members who consider this region the provinces of the Republic of Indonesia. But how is the attitude of the several church leaders?
Seen from a theological point of view it is the duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to unify the faithful. That’s why bishops and pastors think they are not allowed to take side with one of the two attitudes mentioned above, and against the other. However, the real-politics in West Papua makes it impossible for churches to remain neutral and hide their position.
Recently, leaders of three Papuan churches (GIDI, BAPTIST and KINGMI), whose members and leaderships are predominantly native Papuans gathered as “Ecumenical Work Forum of Papuan Churches”, released a pastoral letter condemning the ongoing violence and discrimination against Papuans. These church leaders said to their faithful that because of so many cases of violence, detentions, tortures and killings of civil Papuans, “there is no future for the Papuan nation within the Indonesian system.” As far as I know, the Catholic Church seldom or even never made such a clear statement. Why is that the case?
In the Catholic circle, people often say, “Of course the Church will not frankly support the call for Papua’s independence, but we unanimously raise the injustice that occurs.” This statement needs to be scrutinized. First, the question of Papuan independence seems to be a political subject. But the distinction between politicians’ concern and the church’ concern has lost its relevance from the moment we ask whether or not every nation has a right to own a country. Many Papuans think about themselves as a nation and not as a tribe within the Indonesian nation. Their decolonization process was interrupted by manipulative international politics and Indonesian military infiltrations in 1960s. This complicated historical process, combined with military oppression, human rights violations, marginalization, and resources exploitation caused their integration into the Unitary State of Indonesia more like a colonial occupation than decolonization. With respect to that reality, isn’t it an injustice that Papua is not yet independent, hence should not it be part of the church’ concern “to raise jointly the injustice that occurs in Papua”?
Non-violent struggle for Self-determination
Culturally, Papuans belongs to Melanesian culture and not Malay as other tribes in Indonesia. It also has different historical trajectory. While Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, Papua remained under the Dutch rule until 1963. The Papuans, who wanted their independence as much as other colonized nations in that era, were promised by the Dutch authorities to have its independent nation state by 1970. At the same time, Indonesia, who claimed Papua as part of its territory, gained support from its allies, leading to the New York Agreement 1961 which stipulated the transfer of administration of Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia. It also stipulated that Indonesia would organize a UN supervised referendum no later than 1970 through which the Papuans could decide to join Indonesia or have their independent state.
The referendum did take place in 1969. However, the referendum is in fact a legal defect for two reasons. First, the way it was carried out was contrary to the agreement of one man, one vote. The referendum was in fact an agreement made by 1,025 men and women selected by the Indonesian military administration. Instead of voting, they raised their hands or read from prepared scripts in a display for United Nations observers. Second, the UN General Assembly made the result legally binding, without taking cognizance of the abuses reported by the UN delegates themselves (Drooglever 2005, Saltford 2003).
My argument is: as long as the indigenous Papuans don’t get what is due to them in justice, any development and material relief from Indonesia cannot extinguish the fire of independence struggle. It keeps burning in the heart of each of them. More and more Papuans, including the Christian ones, get involved in non-violent struggle. They realize that arms struggle only means harm and suffering. Hence they fight in Mahatma Gandhi’s manner: no violence, ahimsa, a resistance strategy that delivered India from the evil of colonialism.
The Catholic attitude
The church does not only consist of bishops and other clergy. According to the Jayapura Diocese after its pastoral synod in the seventies, “We are the Church”. Nevertheless, we may hope that the pastors are good shepherds who lead the way and march in front of the flock. To the church as a whole –both leaders and members—the prophetic mission has been entrusted to blame, criticize and correct abuses, for the purpose of bringing back the faithful and the society into the right direction.
In Papua when representatives of other churches heavily and loudly protest as part of their prophetic mission, people ask: “Where is the voice of the Catholic church”? Oftentimes its voice cannot be heard, because Catholic leaders prefer to speak with the responsible “dignitaries” of army, police and government in private meetings. Many Catholic bishops and pastors consider such a talk more effective than protesting publicly. They are also convinced of their duty to build bridges between two opposing parties. But whether such a private talk is more effective than a loud protest that resounds in the media is questionable. The worsening of the human rights situation in the recent years does not prove that this “Catholic approach” is more effective.
I think in order to play an important part in the Church’s prophetic mission, the Catholics and their leaders must speak publicly and very loudly against every human rights violation in West Papua, while at the same time, on one side, respecting the political conviction of each parish member and citizen, either pro-Unitary State or pro-independence, and on the other, explaining why an aspiration for independence is something genuine, especially when pursued without violence: ahimsa.
Father Nico Syukur Dister, OFM is Professor at the “Fajar Timur” School of Philosophy and Theology in Jayapura,
Even though his Dutch is still as fluent as ever, it is doubtful whether Theo van den Broek (70) can still be called a Dutchman. After spending 40 years in Papua (Indonesia), he has a new homeland.
“I went to Papua as a missionary Franciscan brother. I have never stopped working with the people in Jayapura and other places, standing side by side in their struggle for political, economic and social justice. In Papua I became the person I am today and Papua will be the place where I will die. I am no longer a Franciscan brother – I have married a Papua woman – but I have never dissociated myself from the social mission of the Church in Papua.”
Over the years van den Broek has developed an intense and intimate connection with the people of Papua, first as a missionary brother and later as the lay man he is today. It is this connection that embodies the essence of how he looks at the concept of ‘caritas’.
In 40 years’ time he witnessed how this connection between church aid worker and the community he serves has changed drastically, and not always for the better.
Isolation and connectedness
Theo said, when he came here, back in the ‘70s, missionaries came from far away and settled in extremely isolated communities, deep in the interior. “Where public transport stopped, you had to walk through forests and marsh land. Though I coordinated social work of the diocese of Jayapura, and stayed in the provincial capital, I visited many of the outposts”.
Communication with the outside world was difficult then. Twice a day, there was an SSB (Single Side Band) radio connection. Today, communication by road and by internet has greatly improved. It means that even in the smallest village you are better connected to the world, to your family. But it also means that the connection you feel with the people you have come to serve can become less personal, less intense, and less strong.
Besides that, most of the missionaries who come to Papua today come from other parts of Indonesia. “They have, naturally, a more Indonesian perspective on Papua, which is different,” he said.
From the beginning, van den Broek recognizes the sensitive political aspects of the social work the Church engages in and urges church authorities not to turn a blind eye to issues of justice.
“When Papua was integrated into the Indonesian nation in 1963, the local population had no say in the process. Up until today they feel neglected, by Indonesia, by the Dutch, by the US. For them aspects of poverty and underdevelopment, which are huge, cannot be dissociated from the political injustice they experience and their struggle for self-determination. Of course, neither the church nor I ever took sides in this struggle for independence. But I have always defended the people’s right of self-determination. And I have always insisted with church leaders, that church building and missionary work includes the politically more difficult and sensitive struggle against injustice.
During my years as head of the Human Rights Commission of the Jayapura diocese, until 2005, I managed to convince the church of this. Personally, it was totally impossible for me not to speak out against the many cases of discrimination, arrests, murders and disappearances.”
Caritas against all odds
For van den Broek, in essence ‘caritas’ means staying with the community you have come to serve and allowing yourself to become a part of that community.
Whatever the odds. “Ever since Soeharto there has been an organized influx or transmigration of Muslims to Papua, to the extent that the local mainly Christian population has become a minority today and has lost all economic and political control over their own lives. We have always stood up and spoken out against this marginalization.
Of course Indonesian authorities and the army didn’t ‘like’ this. Some of my colleagues and myself, we were blacklisted as being ‘anti-government’ and ‘anti-nationalistic’. Essentially what they told us was to ‘shut up’. What can you do in that case? For a couple of days I changed my modes of transport, looked around more carefully. But then again, if they want to find you, they will, whatever measures you take.”(*)
Necessity to act
Van den Broek’s full time involvement in the church’s human rights work started in the mid ‘90’s, on a day a small group of villagers desperately wanted to speak to the bishop, but the only one present was van den Broek.
“They had travelled from far. They didn’t know who to turn to anymore. People in their village had been shot, others had been beaten up, locked up in containers… They were desperate and wanted to talk to the bishop, who wasn’t there. There and then, as head of the Diocese office at that time I transgressed the limits of my formal authorities and I decided to investigate the human rights violations they shared to the fullest.
Anyway, after I communicated with the bishop, he agreed most heartly with my decision. This resulted in the first human rights report ever to be published by the Church in Papua, in 1995. I knew this was politically very tricky and sensitive. But at the moment the villagers confronted me, a few essential things coincided. There was the immediate confrontation with the sufferings of the people in front of me; there was the decision I had once taken to be at the service of the people in Papua; the knowledge that you are part of the Church and that this gives you a position that you can influence things. There was my own spirituality as a Franciscan, my option for the poor, that allowed me to be touched and disturbed by the eyewitnesses. All this resulted in feeling of solidarity and responsibility and a necessity to act.”
The moral necessity to act and to speak out, as an expression of caritas… Van den Broek points out that it is increasingly difficult to do fulfill this commitment as a church organization. “The new pope is a true inspiration. But narrow financial ties of the church with the national government and with the corporate industry pressure social organizations of the church not to be too critical, to be risk aversive and not to speak out loudly against social and political injustice. And the shift the Church took under Benedictus XVI to pay more attention to devotion and less to societal issues, hasn’t helped either.
That’s why a conference as this one here in Vught can help us to feed and strengthen our own spirituality of caritas, to deepen our connectedness to the sufferings of others and to make sure that human rights and justice remain an essential part of the Church’s pastoral work.”
New elites, more migrants
When van den Broek analyzes Papua’s current situation, he comes to the conclusion that the huge amounts of government spending and the legislative efforts to regulate the autonomy of Papua have not improved the lives of the common people of Papua.
“Unfortunately national Indonesian budgets for Papua, meant to develop the province, have created a Papua elite that has enriched itself with government money and enhanced internal tensions. On top of that these riches have only attracted more migrants. So even though there is an autonomy law for Papua since 2001, the discrimination against the local population, which has now become a minority, has only increased.”
No need for big cathedrals
Today van den Broek is an independent aid worker. In the past 10 years he worked for several NGOs in Papua as well as Eastern Timor, often in management positions. At the age of 70, after 40 years ‘in the field’, his main message to professionals and organizations who strive to work in the spirit of caritas is ‘to live and to stay with the people you serve’. Van den Broek: “There is no need to build big cathedrals or to appoint high level church officials. Just live with the people, stay for longer periods of time than just a few months, listen carefully to what they share with you and base your efforts of development and justice upon their knowledge, their experience and their sufferings.”(*)