Jami' Istiqomah Mosque in Ungaran, Semarang district. This mosque is located opposite Christ the King Church where Father Aloysius Budi Purnomo runs an interreligious dialogue program. (ucanews.com photo)
It's been 15 years since Setyorini, a Muslim woman, sold newspapers in front of the office of Semarang Archdiocese in Indonesia's Central Java province.
The mother of three had a good relationship with the priests and laypeople working at the archdiocesan office. "They often give me cookies ahead of Eid al-Fitr. In return, I usually wished them Merry Christmas in December," she says.
Another local, Adrianus Kris Pranggono, a parishioner from Our Lady Queen of Holy Rosary Cathedral Church, has lived in the town for 21 years. He always participates in activities organized by his neighbors, mostly Muslims, he says.
"We call it tepa slira which means 'respecting each others' feelings,'" he says.
The provincial capital is known for its interreligious dialogue. In April, Mayor Hendrar Prihadi received an award from the Religious Affairs Ministry for his active role in maintaining harmony among communities from various religions.
"We have different religions, ethnicities and cultures but complete each other," Prihadi says.
Besides Semarang town, the province also has 29 districts and five cities. All regions have diverse ethnic groups including Javanese, Malay and Chinese, but most people are Muslims.
"Semarang town is like a miniature Indonesia," the mayor says. "Thank God we have witnessed progress in interreligious dialogue and the Catholic Church is part of it."
Sam Poo Kong, the oldest Chinese temple in Semarang town where the Catholic Church runs a successful interreligious program to combat extremism. (ucanews.com photo)
A small stone
The Catholic Church's significant role in building interreligious dialogue dates back from the time of Father Aloysius Budi Purnomo, who was appointed by then Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo Darmoatmodjo of Semarang, as chairman of the archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in 2008.
"I was asked to do something, no matter how small. It was like throwing a small stone into a pool, it created ripples," Father Purnomo says.
Since then, the Catholic Church, thanks to the commission, has also increased its ecumenical efforts.
The first was educating young people to be promoters of true brotherhood which was followed by forming the True Brotherhood Community. In 2014, a three-day program called the True Brotherhood Congress was organized in Muntilan, Magelang district, where thousands of religious followers gathered.
In May this year, a cultural event was held by the Catholic Church and other religious groups in Semarang. Similar events are planned in other areas under the archdiocese's jurisdiction.
Semarang Archdiocese covers Central Java and Yogyakarta province, serving more than 400,000 Catholics in 100 parishes.
For the church, building interreligious dialogue is not merely done through religious activities but also through environmental, art and cultural programs.
"This is how the Catholic Church shows itself. These programs boost the spirit of brotherhood among people," Father Purnomo says.
Besides serving as the commission's chairman, Father Purnomo is also a parish priest at Christ the King Church in Ungaran, Semarang district, and deputy chairman of Central Java's Interfaith Harmony Forum.
Recently, he received an award for his efforts in building interreligious dialogue. "The Catholic Church knows exactly how to knit people together," says Amin Maulana Budi Harjono, a cleric who owns Al-Ishlah Islamic Boarding School in Semarang town.
The church often takes the initiative, too.
"We are all for promoting interreligious tolerance," says Reverend Sediyoko, chairman of the Communion of Protestant Churches in Semarang.
Even Father Fransiskus Xaverius Sukendar Wignyosumarta, the vicar general of Semarang Archdiocese feels the same way. "But perhaps other people have different opinions," he says.
Tension and threat
During Ramadan 2016, a radical group protested against the Catholic Church for hosting a program attended by former first lady Shinta Nuriyah, who supports religious plurality.
"It was the only tension I have ever experienced," Father Purnomo says.
In a report released in January, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace recorded 208 violations of religious freedom in 2016, up from 196 in the previous year and 134 in 2014, with an average of 17 violations each month.
The Catholic Church, however, never stops its efforts to build a civilization of love among all people. "Building interreligious dialogue is the task of all Catholics," Father Purnomo says.
Besides, there is a serious threat which needs to be dealt with.
"In some regions, radical groups cannot accept diversity. I never heard about this in Central Java but this is a potential threat we need to face," he says.
As time goes by, the Catholic Church's commitment becomes stronger. "It is my breath. I cannot breathe if I do not do this," Father Purnomo says.