Reflections on Indonesia, Christmas
[published here on 12-16-00]
Inter-religious violence -- along with other
varieties of violence -- continues in many parts of Indonesia.
We offer here a lengthy, careful description and
analysis of the terrible events in that nation, the fifth largest
nation in the world. The Rev. John Barr speaks as one who has lived
and worked in Indonesia, and has visited many parts of the country
during the recent troubles. Another
informed observer of the Indonesian situation has confirmed his
description and analysis.
He helps to balance some of the other accounts that
are circulating, by recognizing that Muslims as well as Christians are
frequently the victims of the violence, and that military, government,
and business powers are frequently exploiting and even inspiring the
Click here for
earlier reports from Indonesia.
Times reports [3-14-01] that Christian youths are involved in a
"holy war" against Muslims in Ambon, too.
Address given at the Annual
Allan Walker College of Evangelism
Sydney 2 December 2000
Rev John Barr
Secretary for Indonesia and East Timor
Uniting Church in Australia National Assembly
As we approach Christmas the situation in
Indonesia today is a grave concern. Throughout the archipelago in
Sumatera, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, Lombok, Timor and Papua
ordinary people have become the victims of political manoevreing,
corruption, religious extremism and military power-play.
What's emerging is what I call a dreadful form of
tyranny. Peasant farmers, urban traders, government workers, students,
indigenous forest dwellers, refugees, slum dwellers, and Chinese
business people have all been targeted. The tyranny I speak of is evil
because it destroys the human spirit and ridicules any sense of decency,
justice and peace. This tyranny is turning people against one another,
pitting Christian against Muslim and Muslim against Christian, turning
indigenous people against landless migrants and pro-autonomy people
against those who seek independence.
Such tyranny decimates communities and destroys all
forms of communal life. It's a tyranny that denigrates God and confronts
everything that is holy and good. Theologians have been saying, for a
long time, that the world is on a "collision course with
disaster". This comes as no surprise. Jesus himself had some strong
things to say on the matter and the words "collision" and
"disaster" ring loud as I consider the situation in Indonesia
today. Allow me to reflect on my story over the past six months or so.
My work takes me to the islands of the Indonesian
archipelago on a very frequent basis. In August this year I spent time
in Kupang in West Timor where armed militia, with Indonesian army
backing, still control refugee camps. Here around 100,000 East Timorese
people live in very poor conditions. These people have no land yet they
are too frightened to return to their homeland because they fear
retribution. They are caught up in web of violence that saw two United
Nations refugee workers brutally hacked to death in September.
Then about 5 weeks ago I was in Irian Jaya or the Land
of Papua. Tension among indigenous Papuans is very real. I witnessed a
strong military presence in the region where there are now 10,000
Indonesian troops and some 7,000 Indonesian police stationed to maintain
Jakarta's unwelcome rule over this remote province. I listened to lots
of stories concerning the senseless murder of many people and I was
taken to the spot where three Papuan men had been recently shot in the
back by security forces.
Papuan people are now preparing for further
confrontation and violence. Yesterday, 1 December, was a sensitive day
as some indigenous people dared to declare their independence from
Jakarta. Meanwhile anger, resentment and the notion of
"pay-back" looms large in the psyche of many indigenous
Melanesians. It means the violence will simply spiral.
Then early in November I flew from Papua back to
Makassar and Jakarta via Ambon. From the air I could see huge areas of
Ambon city had been destroyed by fire. In this city, the size of
Canberra, we know that hundreds of shops, houses and institutions
including hospitals and the Christian university have been destroyed.
Tens of thousands of people have fled the city while armed militia
groups wage war on a once peaceful community. While at the airport
terminal in Ambon I was escorted by armed soldiers in what seemed to be
a huge security operation that clearly indicates Ambon is a city under
siege. Just this week another 50 Christians were massacred in the
We also know that hundreds of thousands of local
people from other parts of Maluku and North Maluku have been attacked
and have fled their villages. In July I visited large refugee camps in
North Sulawesi that house around 30,000 Christians from Tobelo and other
parts of Halmahera. We know that in Ternate there are similar numbers of
Muslim refugees living in the same kind of conditions.
The stories I listened to mentioned violent incidents
of a most brutal and senseless kind that targeted even young children,
women and old people. There were horrific stories about the murder of
small children whose bodies were dumped at sea. I spoke to a young woman
who had lost her husband in an attack on her village. She was nine
months pregnant and gave birth in jungle while literally on the run from
Official figures indicate that around 5,000 people
have been killed in the violence throughout the Maluku Islands over the
past two years. Unofficial figures suggest the number killed is much,
Friends, it's indeed been a challenging year for
anyone who has links with Indonesia. A really disturbing dimension to
all this trouble is the division and the hatred that is erupting in
local communities. Just before East Timor's referendum in August 1999,
the Timorese community was deeply split between pro-autonomy and
pro-independence factions. This even impacted on the life and leadership
of the church. Also in West Timor there is now division between local
Kupang communities and East Timorese refugees.
In Kalimantan there is conflict between Dayak people
and immigrants from the island of Madura. Some Dayaks have tragically
reverted back to ancient pagan headhunting practices as they attacked
Javanese newcomers, severed their heads and paraded their
"trophies" through the town. In the Baliem Valley of Papua
violence has seen local Dani people shot and many immigrants from other
parts of Indonesia driven out of the area.
In Ambon and Halmahera together with other locations
including Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi, Lombok and Java, communal
conflict has taken on a tragic religious dimension. Christians and
Muslims have been, and continue to be, engaged in serious sectarian
violence. Thousands of people have been slaughtered, churches and
mosques have been burnt, and communities have been blown apart.
It is at the point of religious sectarianism and
religious violence that Indonesia's tyranny appears to be at its worst.
Much of the violence, hatred and division is centered on the terrible
tension that has developed between Christian and Muslim.
Its true to say that Indonesia is a nation of immense
cultural, ethnic and religious difference. Normally, this difference is
valued and respected. I lived in Kupang, West Timor from 1985 to 1990
with my wife and children. In my kampung our neighbours at our rear were
Balinese Hindus while our neighbours to our right were Minahasan
Pentecostals. Our neighbours to our front on one side were Javanese
Muslims and our neighbours to our front on the other side were Maluku
Catholics. Our neighbours to our left were Timorese Protestants. Then,
of course, all our neighbours had interesting neighbours themselves in
the form of an Australian family with an Anglo-Celtic cultural identity
and a Methodist, now Uniting Church, heritage.
Our kampung was a safe, tolerant, courteous community.
We respected, valued and sometimes even laughed at our differences. At
the conclusion of the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan and during the
celebration of Idul Fitri we would visit our Muslim friends and bring
them greetings. At Christmas our Muslim friends would visit us and bring
But this situation has now tragically changed. I find
it quite disturbing to know that the courtesy and trust I experienced in
Kupang has broken down in many places. Religious identity has become a
focus of the tension and a source of the conflict. It has even become
the focus and the source of communal hatred. For example, in the Maluku
Islands the colour of headbands worn by young men (red if you are
Christian or a white if you are Muslim) determines one's fate. Children
taunt one another about their religion. Young men form armed militias in
the name of God and go on crusades to "cleanse" their
respective communities. A system of "religious apartheid" now
operates as separate Christian and Muslim enclaves develop.
As I try to understand what is really going on in
Indonesia, it appears to me that religious traditions and religious
identities are being deliberately targeted and manipulated. Religious
faith and religious passions are being subverted by those who come with
an agenda to create havoc and destroy the good things of life.
Christians and Muslims
are therefore being set up as local Christian and Muslim communities are
pitted against one another and are being forced into a spiral of
violence and hatred. I believe this tyranny is being orchestrated by the
Indonesian military together with extremist Islamic forces. Their
purpose is to create chaos and, out of the chaos, to assert their own
form of sinister power and control.
The Indonesian military are largely a force
seemingly answerable to no-one except themselves. Leading generals have
been involved in business enterprises that include logging, minerals,
oil, transportation and manufacturing. These business interests have
funded military activities independent of the state. One could argue
that aspects of the Indonesian military really seem to function like
independent agents doing their own thing. The military sit uncomfortably
with the democratically elected President of the Republic of Indonesia,
Abdurraham Wahid while the disgraced former president of the Republic,
General Suharto, still exercises considerable influence through his
Meanwhile the unstable political situation and
the uncertain economic climate throughout Indonesia provides a platform
for the rise of extremist Islamic forces in the region. I need to say
that most Muslims in Indonesia are not extremist. They do not support
radical Islam and, in fact, have great fears concerning this movement
that appears to have strong links with Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle
East and also with liberation movements in the Southern Philippines.
This fear was manifest in the recent Indonesian elections where radical
Islamic groups polled extremely poorly.
Yet, in collusion with military interests, radical
Islamic groups are engaged in an active push to assert their dominance
and to eliminate Christianity in a number of areas of Indonesia. They
are pursuing a radical Islamic agenda with the ultimate intention of
changing Indonesia from a secular state that embraces a number of
religious traditions to an Islamic state based on Islamic law.
The formation of a "jihad" in Java earlier
this year is a case in point. As many as 10,000 Muslim young men were
recruited, trained, armed and sent to Christian areas on what now
appears to be a missionary venture to either convert Christians to Islam
or eliminate Christianity altogether. I believe many of these young men
are misguided. Most are victims of the economic crisis. They are
vulnerable as they have no work, little income and a very uncertain
Despite this, Christians are understandably terrified
and traumatised by what is happening. As recently as this week, there
were reports indicating that another 50 Christians were massacred in
Maluku. This is a tragic addition to the hundreds already massacred
earlier in the year. We have evidence that the Indonesian military are
actively supporting the Jihad as the Jihad attack, kill and burn
Christian communities. Christians in Maluku have told me that they feel
defenseless against these unrelenting attacks. They have no security, no
protection and no rights.
All this scheming, power-play and maneuvering is
incredibly serious because it could lead to the kind of conflict that
goes on for generations and generations. We are looking at another
Middle East and the situation is so serious that it threatens the future
So the news is not good. Its not good for Indonesia's
20 million Christians. It's not good for people who yearn for democratic
reforms. It's not good for those who are committed to a modern, secular
state. And it's not good for the majority of Indonesia's Muslims who
simply want to live in peace with their neighbours.
If people are to have a
future in Indonesia then I believe the maneuvering, manipulation and
power-play that is going on must be challenged. The international
community and the worldwide Christian community have a vital role here
in raising the issues and keeping the issues before governments and
strategic authorities around the world.
If people are to have a future in Indonesia then I
believe there must also be an emphasis on peace and reconciliation. This
is indeed a priority among the Christian churches and also among an
increasing number of local Muslim organisations in Indonesia. I am, for
example, aware of important negotiations that have already taken place
between local Christian and Muslim communities in Kupang, West Timor,
and in Tual, Southeastern Maluku.
The Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua,
like many churches across the Indonesian archipelago, is particularly
aware of these issues. During their recent General Assembly in Sorong,
Irian Jaya (which I attended), the Evangelical Church identified this
time in terms of "kairos", a critical moment in time when the
church must reach out to the community and play an important role in
bringing people together. The purpose of this bringing together is to
nurture and encourage people to work for peace and reconciliation.
Likewise in Manado, North Sulawesi, I encountered some
young ministers who saw this as a critical time when the church must
affirm its solidarity with the poor and prioritise its ministry with
those who are traumatised and hurt. In East Timor I saw the church using
this as critical time to demonstrate God's incredible grace as warring
parties learn the power of forgiveness. In Halmahera I have seen how the
love of Jesus can radiate in the lives of church leaders as they pick up
the pieces and just get on with it despite the evil that has been done
around them and despite the evil that has been done to them.
Good things are happening in times that may only be
seen to be bad times. There are things to praise God for.
And this brings me to my most important point. When I
was asked to speak this evening it was suggested I bring a Christmas
message. The great advent text from Isaiah 9: 1-7 was suggested. Little
did people know that this is a text that really sustains me and keeps me
going during these most difficult times. Isaiah 9:1-7 is one of those
texts that simply will not leave me alone. I find myself coming back to
it to time and after time after time.
The New International Version introduces the text with
the words: "To Us a Child in Born" and we all know what is
meant here as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a
great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light
And what a light this is! For it is a light that
brings peace and justice. The one who comes is named as: "Wonderful
Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace"
These are magnificent words with a powerful promise.
Here is a strong statement about God and the mighty works of God among
God's people. Here is a promise for those who are burdened. Here is a
promise for those who are trod on and for those who have been plummeted
into the shadow of death.
I have no doubt that today many Christians in
Indonesia and East Timor are sustained and encouraged by these powerful
words of promise. I have no doubt that these words will be as powerful
as ever this Christmas as the realities of life are faced by our
brothers and sisters across the Indonesian archipelago.
And there is more because in all of this we, as the
family of Christ around the world, also find hope in these words. We all
find hope when there may be little ground for hope. We all discover
there is a future when there may little evidence to suggest otherwise.
Tonight and as we approach Christmas I believe God
reaches out to the Christian community in Indonesia and God reaches out
to members of this community with the ongoing challenge to live with a
And the conviction goes like this: The hope and the
future of the world lies in the birth of the Christ child. The turmoil,
the fear and the trauma of what is happening to our north can be, and
will be, challenged. There will avenues reconciliation and there will
ways for peacemaking. There will be an end to the violence. This is
As we hear all these stories and work with our
Indonesian brothers and sisters, I believe this is our reason for being
as Christians today. Our reason for being is to live with the conviction
that the light is here, that the darkness holds no power over those who
love the Lord, that God's reign of justice and peace is upon us.
It's a challenge for me and it's a challenge for you.
As we prepare for Christmas I pray your reason for being and your
conviction to follow Christ will embrace and live out this great
"For a child has been born for us, a son given to
us: authority rests on his shoulders: and he is named Wonderful
Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Rev John Barr
Secretary for Indonesia and East Timor
Uniting Church in Australia National Assembly
PO Box A2266 Sydney South 1235
2 December 2000