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Indonesia

Dutchman brings gospel to life for millions of Indonesians

'Are you willing to go to Jakarta?': Priest credited with rekindling interest in the scriptures over 50-year period

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Dutchman brings gospel to life for millions of Indonesians

Dutch-born Franciscan Father Martin Harun has translated the Scriptures into Indonesian and written numerous books that have become popular reference points for Catholics and Protestants alike. (Photo by Siktus Harson/ucanews.com)

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When Indonesians needed a bullet-proof translation of the recent declaration signed by Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, Dutch-born Franciscan Father Martin Harun was the obvious choice.

The pontiff's meeting with el-Tayab, the grand imam of al-Azhar and a leading religious authority for Sunni Muslims worldwide, was hailed as a "clarion call for robust dialogue that leads to peace" by the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

The document the two religious leaders produced, On Human Fraternity, called for Christians and Muslims to respect one another and work together for the common good of mankind.

Its message of religious tolerance could hardly have come at a better time for Indonesian society, pundits say, as the country struggles to find ways to defuse a slow-burning renascence of extremism.

Father Harun put his hand up to translate the declaration — something he did for both Christians and Muslims — and added another impressive honor to his list of accomplishments.

He first went to Jakarta in 1971, fell in love with the country and its language, and was instrumental in translating and revising scriptural texts that are still used by millions of Catholics today.

Although Father Harun retired from his university positions in 2013, and withdrew to a Franciscan Home in Sindanglaya, West Java, he remains active in spreading the Gospel amid burgeoning demand using his "unique" teaching methods.

"Every year, I still write a number of articles and at least one book about the Gospel," said the 79-year-old, who also serves as an adviser to the Indonesian Biblical Institute (LBI) along with Jakarta Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo, chairman of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference.

He has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles about the scriptures, a number of which are considered go-to reference texts at Indonesian universities and among local Catholic communities.

The priest, who is also fluent in Greek, Hebrew, French, and English, said there is growing interest among local Catholics to explore the scriptures.

"Scripture courses are always in demand at universities here and the classes are packed," he told ucanews.com, adding books that contain daily readings and reflections are rapidly gaining traction in the country.

"But the majority of people still only hear Scripture at church on Sundays," he lamented.

The priest continues to blaze a trail, however, by frequently appearing at seminars, workshops, or retreats across the country, as well as translating key church documents.

In addition to On Human Fraternity, his translation of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si', in e-book form was adopted by the Indonesian Bishops' Conference as its standard reference material.

"I felt it was important to give as many Indonesian readers as possible immediate access to this document, because I have a special concern for environmental issues," he said.

Father Arnoldus Thomson Richarnot, a former student of Father Harun, now serves as a missionary in the Congo. He said the priest's teaching methods are so powerful because he always strives to keep the Bible relevant.

"For example, he once asked us to write a letter from the Apostle Paul and address it to Catholic communities in Indonesia. The letter had to contain the problems people were raising and dealing with every day," he said.

Father Yohanes Subagyo, deputy chairman of the LBI and a longtime co-worker of the Dutch priest, describes him as "a highly respected figure among Catholic and Protestant Bible scholars."

He praised Father Harun's "extraordinary dedication" and his contributions to deuterocanonical translations of canonical books from the Old Testament.

"He organized them so well so that they can be accounted scientifically," Father Subagyo told ucanews.com.

Franciscan Father Peter C. Aman, a professor of moral theology at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta, said Father Harun has left an invaluable legacy by virtue of his evangelistic activity in Indonesia.

His pioneering efforts among the nation's scriptural apostolate have helped position the Franciscans as a leading authority on both ancient and modern translations of Scripture, Father Aman said.

The congregation is lining up a replacement to continue his work, he added.

"Two of our brothers are studying the scriptures now [to prepare for this], one in Jerusalem and one in Rome," he told ucanews.com.

However, filling Father Harun's shoes is not likely to be an easy task.

His unbridled enthusiasm saw him leap at the chance to help set up a campus for Franciscan seminarians in Jakarta half a century ago, and he hasn't looked back.

"My superior asked me, 'Are you willing to go to Jakarta?'" he recalls, adding that he was studying scripture in the Netherlands at the time.

"I immediately said 'With pleasure!'"

After finishing his doctorate in Jerusalem, he set course for Asia. After several months spent studying Indonesian, he began teaching scripture at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, a campus jointly founded by the Franciscans, Jesuits and Jakarta Archdiocese.

While teaching there, he helped set up a permanent secretariat for the LBI, which was later adopted by the Indonesian Bishops' Conference after many years of being managed by the Franciscans.

He also worked with the Protestant-owned Indonesian Bible Institute, showcasing his inter-disciplinary prowess, and was a regular lecturer at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta and Parahyangan University in Bandung, West Java.

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