An adopted son's passion for Indonesian pluralism

Jesuit priest Franz Magnis Suseno doesn't mince words when promoting democracy, dialogue in Muslim majority country
An adopted son's passion for Indonesian pluralism

German-born Jesuit Father Franz Magnis Suseno has become an Indonesian citizen and an outspoken champion of democracy and interfaith dialogue in Indonesia. (Photo by Siktus Harson/ucanews.com)

Not so long ago, Jesuit priest Father Franz Magnis Suseno stirred up a hornet's nest in Muslim majority Indonesia which is bracing for presidential and legislative elections.

He ruffled a few feathers by shooting straight from the hip and calling people who are threatening to boycott the polls fools, parasites, and psycho freaks.

His scathing comments came in an article about the upcoming Indonesian presidential and legislative elections published by Kompas, the country’s bestselling newspaper.

Many criticized him for the remarks, some even sent him letters of protest, but many also supported him.

The German-born priest, a professor at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, has apologized for his choice of words but argued the article was a call for all citizens to care for democracy and prevent the worst individuals from being elected to office.

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"We have struggled hard for a democracy that could only be achieved more than 50 years after independence,” Father Magnis told ucanews.com.

"Now, we must take care of it,” he said.

The 82-year-old, born into a noble family and who was once called Count von Magnis, is now widely known as a philosopher, human rights defender, and culturalist, with his main area of expertise being Javanese culture.

He has written 41 books on philosophy, political ethics, and Christianity, as well as made countless television appearances.

During his time in the country, Father Magnis has witnessed a major shift in Indonesia’s political climate from a 32-year dictatorship under Suharto to the reform era that began in 1998 when the tap of democracy was opened.

“It’s my moral obligation to speak up when democracy is threatened,” he said.

He says he is optimistic that Indonesia will remain a leading democracy in Southeast Asia, but admitted various threats do concern him, especially what he calls the politicization of religion by hard-line Muslims.

“Indonesia will only fall to another authoritarian regime if people continue to use religion in politics,” he said.

He said it is dangerous because, for many people, religion is more important than democracy. 

Dine with hard-line Muslims

One way to prevent the abuse of religion in politics is to build a bridge with other believers, especially with majority Muslims, he says.

The priest, who became an Indonesian citizen in 1977, has involved himself in gatherings and meetings with various Muslim groups, including Islamic universities.

"I always use the opportunity to tell them what I expect from them regarding the future of this nation," he said.

Father Magnis has built close friendships with several respected Muslim leaders, including the late Abdurahman Wahid, a highly respected figure, and Indonesia’s fourth president, as well as Nurcholish Majid, an avid defender of pluralism in Indonesia.

Holding dialogue with extreme elements is also important, he said, especially when conflict occurs.

He has met the now exiled Islamic Defenders Front chief, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, several times when his organization sought to impose its own ban on worshiping activities in a number of churches in Jakarta.

In 2011, Father Magnis met Shihab, to discuss the issue of an American pastor burning a Quran in Florida, which angered Muslims all over the world. Following the discussions, Shihab told his angry followers not to take out their anger on Indonesian Christians.

In building a relationship with believers of other faiths, it is important for Christians to be humble and sensible and to avoid belittling acts or gestures. 

"It’s better to be low profile, rather than something fancy,” he said, adding that this philosophy should be especially applied in poor areas.

This was why he called the erection of a 46-meter-high Marian statue in Ambarawa, Central Java in 2015, “inappropriate.”

He also regretted that the late Archbishop Johannes Maria Trilaksyanta Pujasumarta of Semarang blessed the statue.

"We [Christians] don't need to create our own culture, which makes them [Muslims] feel alienated," he said.

Avoid aggressive Christianization

Father Magnis is also critical of Christians who measure the success of their work by the number of people they attract to Christianity because it leads to aggressive Christianization. 

“Our mission is to bring the goodness of Christ into our society and let people decide whether to join us,” he said.

He said Indonesia will remain an Islamic country, and what Christians can do is to help them build a better democratic system, where freedom of religion is upheld and interfaith relations are well established.

Father Antonius Benny Sustyo, an outspoken activist priest, said Father Magnis’ openness and willingness to communicate with others are among his finest characteristics.

“His ideas and efforts have become a priceless contribution to the nation,” said Father Susetyo who is also active in interfaith dialogue.

Achmad Nurcholish, a Muslim activist said Father Magnis had contributed a lot to the progress of humanity in Indonesia, especially through his writings that have an enriched perspective.

In terms of interreligious relations, Father Magnis seeks to restore religion as a source of virtue for its followers to love others, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, Nurcholish said.

Awards

Father Magnis' endeavors have been duly recognized and have earned him a number of awards.

In 2015, he received an award from Indonesian President Joko Widodo for his dedication to education and culture. 

A year later, in 2016, he won the Matteo Ricci International Prize for his commitment to promoting interreligious dialogue from the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Milan.

However, the one that gives him the most pleasure is a so-called “Mud Award”, bestowed on him by communities in East Java whose land and homes were buried by mud caused by the activities of a company belonging to Aburizal Bakrie, a businessman cum politician.

It was given in 2007 after the priest refused to accept a Bakrie Award — handed out by Aburizal Bakrie’s family — to show solidarity with people affected by the mud disaster.

"I was very happy with that award. I’ll always treasure it,” he said.

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