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Diocese of Agats

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Diocese of Agats
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Agats diocese covers an area of 37,000 square kilometers that comprises the whole of Asmat district and a small part of Mappi district, both in Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province.

Agats town, the base of the diocese and capital of Asmat district, lies 3,400 kilometers east of Jakarta.

Swamp and forest cover the diocesan territory. The major ethnic group is the Asmat, 59,000 of whom live in the area, scattered in 100 villages. The tribe was isolated from the outside world and almost untouched by civilization until the 1940s, when the local people urged the Dutch colonial rulers to open up their region.

Following the establishment of Jayapura prefecture in 1952, two Sacred Heart missionary priests visited Asmat. They came from Mimika, a coastal area now part of Timika diocese, where Catholicism had been spreading since its establishment more than two decades earlier. They opened several missionary settlements and placed catechists from Mimika in charge of them. The priests took up residence in Agats in 1953, and learned the local language and culture.

In 1956, Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart sisters opened a dormitory and clinic in Atsy subdistrict. They worked there until 1966. Other women's congregations came later -- the Ursulines, Mary the Mediatrix sisters and Daughters of St. Angela.

In 1958 several Crosier priests and brothers came from the United States to work in Asmat. In 1961, the Crosier missioners took charge of the whole Asmat-speaking region.

The Vatican established Agats diocese on Nov. 23, 1969, and appointed American Father Alphonse Sowada, one of the Crosier priests who had arrived in 1961, as the first bishop of Agats. Franciscan Bishop Murwito succeeded him in September 2002.

Asmat tribal people are known for their woodcarvings and other traditional art.

Bishop Sowada built the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in 1973 to help preserve and develop local culture. It houses carved poles representing Asmat ancestors, other carvings and clothing made for spirits, as well as stuffed birds and crocodiles. Agats diocese began sponsoring occasional cultural festivals in 1981. The diocesan pastoral conference made them an annual event beginning in 2001, the year before Bishop Murwito took charge of the diocese from Bishop Sowada.

Bishop Sowada, who was instrumental in evangelizing the Asmat, retired as shepherd of the diocese in 2001, but he still ministers to the Asmat people and promotes their culture.

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