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Indonesia

Can a papal visit bring peace to restive Papua?

Archbishop Mandagi's request for a papal visit reflects the local Church's sense of powerlessness in promoting peace and justice

Can a papal visit bring peace to restive Papua?
A coffin bearing the remains of Oktovianus Rayo, a teacher who was shot dead on April 8 by suspected armed rebels in Beoga district, arrives in Timika in Indonesia's Papua province on April 10. (Photo: AFP)

Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke recently requested a papal visit to Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua. He believes that a papal visit can help resolve Papua’s long history of violent conflict since the early 1960s when the region, arguably involuntarily, became part of Indonesia through the New York Agreement. Hosted by the USA, the agreement was signed on Aug. 15, 1962, by the Netherlands and Indonesia regarding administration of the land. 

Papua’s political membership status within the unitary state of Indonesia was reconfirmed in 1969 when a kind of referendum known as the Act of Free Choice was held, and apparently most voters freely chose to remain part of Indonesia. These two historical events — the New York Agreement in 1962 and the Act of Free Choice in 1969 — remain politically problematic and may have caused a sense of restlessness, particularly among the historically conscious Papuans.

Meaningful efforts to promote peace in the region may need to revisit the history of Papua’s integration with Indonesia. Understanding its history is key to identifying the roots of the conflict in Indonesia’s easternmost region, whether the restlessness of Papuans is historically rooted in the early years of its integration with Indonesia, or if it has a completely different cause. For this to take place, however, requires courage, commitment and humility from all parties and elements in society. Failure to apply a historical approach, as well as a cultural-religious approach, in peace negotiations means the journey toward peace may remain an unfulfilled dream for years to come.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Archbishop Mandagi’s request for a papal visit to Papua reflects the sense of powerlessness of the local Catholic Church in promoting peace and justice in the region. On a positive note, the archbishop’s move is an important proposition that needs to be taken seriously by both the Vatican and Jakarta. The presence of a top religious figure — Pope Francis — in the country, and Papua in particular, would give positive energy to peace-building efforts.

Some have been skeptical, though. Can a papal visit really bring peace to the protracted issue of unrest in Papua given that both the local and national church have failed for years? This question reflects that skepticism, and it is understandable.

It is true that the Indonesian Church has failed to effectively intervene in previous decades, so it seems unrealistic to expect a papal visit to help the cause. Christians in Papua have also been accused of being part of Papua’s endless violent conflict with the Indonesian military, or TNI.

It is unrealistic to expect a sudden positive change given the long history of violence in the region since the early 1960s

Partly for this reason, Archbishop Mandagi’s request can be seen as not only unrealistic but also a reflection of a failure to understand and accept responsibility for some of the problems in Papua. Implicit to the request, there seems to be a perception that there is something magical about a papal visit. There is even an expectation that Papua will instantly transform itself from being restive to peaceful.

It is unrealistic to expect a sudden positive change given the long history of violence in the region since the early 1960s. However, a papal visit would help the process of change, starting with individual mindsets and attitudes. Peace negotiations can only take place, and peace can only be achieved, if all the warring parties are willing to cease fighting.

Archbishop Mandagi made the request through the national bishops' conference, known in Indonesian by the acronym KWI. Reading between the lines, there seems to be a suggestion that the KWI should pay more attention to the restive region. Yet no specific details have been explained as to the sort of attention concretely needed by the Papuans in their search for peace, other than to invite Pope Francis to visit the region. Even if desired actions were specified, for example, to put pressure on Jakarta to review its strong military presence in Papua, there is no certainty the bishops’ conference would be willing to fulfill them.

Historically, when it comes to domestic political matters, the bishops’ conference has been inclined to choose to remain silent, as in the case of mass killings of suspected communists during the anti-communist violence of 1965-66. Silence appears to be the Church’s political comfort-zone institutionally. The Church as an institution would therefore be very cautious in voicing its negative feelings openly, if any, about the failure of Jakarta in protecting the rights of Papuans to live in peace and harmony with one another.

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Even though over the years some priests have voiced their demands for the restoration of peace in Papua, their demands would not be automatically seen by the KWI as reflective of the official position of the Indonesian Church. Indeed, the appeal for the bishops’ conference to be more involved and proactive in peace promotion is imperative. The institutional intervention of the KWI is important and urgently needed in ending conflict. Leaving it to individual priests and bishops in Papua to fight for peace could make them easy targets for violence and terror.

Archbishop Mandagi was installed as archbishop of Merauke on Jan. 3 after being appointed last November. Before coming to Merauke, he was bishop of Amboina since 1994, and in 2019 he was appointed apostolic administrator of Merauke. He was born in 1949 in Kamangta, North Sulawesi, and ordained as a priest in 1975. His motto is “Nil Nisi Christum” (Christ alone, Galatians 2:20).

Interestingly. soon after his instalment, Archbishop Mandagi signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Jan. 5 with a palm oil company, PT Tunas Sawa Erma, part of the Korindo Group. This signing of the MoU, even though it is not a strong legal document, was not well received by some Papuan Catholic activists. It disappointed and angered them. They felt the archbishop’s action was irresponsible without prior public consultation.

The journey to peace in Papua is challenging, and that challenge needs to be faced individually and collectively for a positive result

The archbishop was then accused of being environmentally negligent and culturally insensitive and disrespectful. In protest, since late January, Papuan Catholic activists have been collecting funds from those attending Masses on Sundays to give to Archbishop Mandagi with a demand that he must cancel his MoU with the palm oil company for a plantation in the Archdiocese of Merauke.

The controversy is mentioned here only as background about the archbishop’s economic and ecological positions. It is not necessarily presented to weaken his request for more involvement of the KWI and the visit of Pope Francis. However, the controversy can be seen to reflect the lack of commitment and consistency within the church hierarchy in Indonesia on peace building in Papua. The overemphasis on the importance of economic interests seems to have compromised the Church’s advocacy of justice and peace as fundamental aspects of human rights.

The journey to peace in Papua is challenging, and that challenge needs to be faced individually and collectively for a positive result. May the long-waited peace be achieved in Papua, a land abundant in natural resources but which remains one of the poorest regions in the country.

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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