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Indonesian priest heads reclusive tribe on mission of discovery

Father Fadjar nurtures the culture of the isolated Osing people without trying to convert them to Catholicism

Indonesian priest heads reclusive tribe on mission of discovery

Father Damianus Fadjar Tedjo Sukarno (center) leads a prayer before he and Osing people stage a ritual in Banyuwangi, East Java, last year. (Photo supplied)

When Father Damianus Fadjar Tedjo Sukarno visited the Osing tribe in the villages of Banyuwangi district in East Java 20 years ago, he saw the people there had low self-esteem and did not want to meet outsiders.

The priest was assigned there in 2000 by the late Carmelite Bishop Herman Joseph Sahadat Pandoyoputro of Malang to head Our Lady of Peace Queen Parish in Banyuwangi.

The word Osing means “no” in the local dialect because its people rejected the influence of the outside world. They were only brave to speak among themselves, not with outsiders.

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Father Fadjar, 50, from Malang, slowly tried to meet and speak with them because Osing villages were under his parish. He soon discovered the richness of their culture, but it was only an inside story.

It took some time for the Javanese priest to get into their philosophy and gradually open them to the outside world. Now the people have the confidence to communicate with people of other cultures, even to perform their culture to the public.

Astonishingly, the priest was appointed head of the tribe. As a tribal leader, he wears traditional Osing black clothes and a hat, signifying humility before God.

“As a priest, my ministry not only includes Catholics but all people, including the Osing tribe,” Father Fadjar, who was ordained a priest in 1999, told UCA News.

Osing are one of 1,340 tribes in Indonesia. The tribe has more than 12,000 members, a tiny proportion of Banyuwangi district’s 1.7 million population.

The ethnogenesis of the Osing tribe dates back to the collapse of the Majapahit empire in 1474, and they claimed to be remnants of the Blambangan kingdom.

According to the priest, although Osing people are Muslims, they also practice Hinduism, Buddhism and animism of ancient Java, such as Ider Bumi (Going Around the World), Tumpeng Sewu (Thousand Tumpeng) and Mape Kasur (Dry Mattress).

The Ider Bumi ritual is held two days after Eid al-Fitr and includes a carnival to cleanse their villages of illness or disaster.

The Mape Kasur is a tradition to cast out demonic threats, held one week before Eid al-Adha, in which all villages dry mattresses to save their villages and maintain harmony in the family.

Tumpeng Sewu displays Osing traditional food as a thanksgiving for their harvest. They invite ancestors to eat together. The house’s walls are opened so that ancestral spirits can enter.

The priest said he cares about all these traditions and as the tribe's leader he wants them preserved and exposed to the public. He is cooperating with local governments to establish the area as a tourist destination.

Spirit of Vatican II

For Father Fadjar, his attention to the Osing tribe is in line with Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world of the Second Vatican Council.

“In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path,” he said, quoting the document.

He was also inspired by Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), a declaration on the relation of the Church with non-Christian religions of the Second Vatican Council.

“In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions,” he said, quoting the document.

Both documents encouraged him to join other religions, including Osing people, and his service was supported by the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference.

Although he has served them for years, he has never converted them to Catholicism, though 36 Osing people chose to become Catholic.

“I don’t want to convert them to Catholicism. We must respect their faith. We study their cultural values as a means of inculturation,” he said.

Out of the comfort zone

Father Fadjar also acknowledged his ministry to the Osing tribe in line with the spirit of the Abu Dhabi Declaration. It was signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed At-Tayyeb on human fraternity for world peace and living together on Feb. 4, 2019, during the pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates.

He said he was happy with the Abu Dhabi Declaration as it confirms what he has done. “It invites us to get out of our comfort zone and go down among people.”

The priest also claimed to have been delighted by Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti on fraternity and social friendship, issued on Oct. 3.

However, he admitted that his involvement with the tribe has irked some Catholics and priests who claimed that it was not in line with the Bible.

“I believe what I do proclaims the Good News to the tribe and all creation,” he said, adding that such criticism happened “because they don’t want to get out of their comfort zone.”

He said all Osing people in Banyuwangi know him as a Catholic priest and their leader. They visit him every day, even more frequently than Catholics.

Suhaimi, 61, one of the Osing leaders, said his community thanked Father Fadjar for his care for their culture.

“He helps us with almost everything in the community. I learn many things from the priest on custom rituals. I hope the priest will always help the Osing tribe in our efforts to conserve our culture,” he told UCA News.

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