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Arrest of Papua's 'machine gun pastor' is a ticking time bomb

Christian leaders must try to maintain a balance between loyalty to Indonesia and pastoral care for all Papuans

Arrest of Papua's 'machine gun pastor' is a ticking time bomb

A motorcade transports the body of Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, who headed Papua's intelligence agency, for his funeral on April 26 after he was killed in Indonesia's restive Papua region during a gun battle between police and separatist rebels. (Photo: Sevianto Pakiding /AFP)

The arrest of a pastor in Papua by security forces for allegedly supplying weapons to a separatist group could intensify scrutiny on churches in the restive Indonesian region, according to some, but others believe it was a betrayal of his church and Christians.

Reverend Paniel Kogoya of the Kalibobo Advent Church in Nabire district was arrested on April 18. He was accused of providing guns for the National Liberation Army of West Papua.

Some Papuan activists claimed police violated his human rights and used torture and coercion to support the accusation. But police refuted this by saying they had the testimony of the gun suppliers — believed to be members of an Indonesian shooting club — who were arrested earlier.

The police said Kogoya had spent 1.1 billion rupiah (US$84,000) on purchasing two M4 and two M16 rifles and other firearms before his arrest.

The money supposedly came from rebel leader Egianus Kogoya (it has not been confirmed if they are related), who obtained it by robbing villagers and tribal leaders. The money was then allegedly given to the pastor to buy guns. The police also said the pastor used donations from churchgoers to buy guns.

His arrest has deeply shocked the Catholic and Protestant churches, which have steadfastly tried to maintain impartiality in a region marred by decades of violence despite claims by security forces that elements within the churches were actively supporting the independence movement.

Indonesian security forces believe the Papuan separatist movement has several layers

There have been many instances where police and soldiers have targeted churchgoers. Four Catholic youths in Abepura were arrested for displaying the banned Morning Star flag when attending a Mass, on Dec. 1, 2019, to mark West Papua’s “Independence Day.”

In November last year, dozens were arrested, including well-known human rights defender and church activist Wenselaus Watubun, for organizing a public consultation on the implementation of a special autonomy law in Papua. Police also often prohibited political discussions at churches in Papua for unspecified reasons.

Indonesian security forces believe the Papuan separatist movement has several layers, namely political, clandestine and an armed wing.

The latter is obvious, but those involved with the others are hard to pin down as they appear ordinary on the surface, which is why, despite their protestations, church people have come under suspicion.

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Kogoya’s arrest has not helped matters. It has certainly dented efforts by Christian leaders in Papua to maintain a balance between loyalty to Indonesia and pastoral care for all Papuans regardless of their political affiliation.

It has also reinforced suspicions by security forces of Papuan churches at a time when tensions between Jakarta and separatists are at an all-time high.

On April 29, the government designated separatist groups and their supporters as terrorists after the April 25 killing of Brig. Gen. IG Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, the intelligence chief in Papua.

Activists claim the move will pave the way for further rights violations and, because of Kogoya’s alleged actions, churches and church leaders could also be in the firing line.

In the past, church leaders could easily refute any suspicion of supporting separatist groups, but now it might not be so easy. Any sign of support could be construed as aiding terrorists.

This could see the shedding of more Christian blood like that of a catechist who was shot dead by soldiers near his home in October last year.

A month later, Reverend Yeremia Zanambani of the Gospel Tabernacle Church of Indonesia was shot dead by troops near his house.  Both times the soldiers accused the victims of being part of a separatist group.

It would be wrong to tarnish all priests, pastors or churchgoers with the same brush because of the actions of one person

The claims of impartiality by churches were also not helped in July last year when 57 indigenous Papuan Catholic priests led by Father Jhon Alberto Bunay called on the Indonesian government to hold an independence referendum.

It was a clear political statement that they considered the government to have failed in Papua.

The call won the support of Papuans. However, from the security forces' point of view, it confirmed their suspicions as to whose side the Church was on.

Kogoya's alleged activities have reinforced this suspicion further, but actively supporting an armed group is different from airing a political viewpoint.

It would be wrong to tarnish all priests, pastors or churchgoers with the same brush because of the actions of one person.

To allay and defuse the fears of the authorities and demonstrate that Kogoya was acting alone, Christian religious leaders must cooperate and engage in meaningful dialogue with the military and police.

The military and police, meanwhile, should not take the law into their own hands.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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