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Indonesian priest takes cultural path to religious harmony

A study of dying customs and traditions on Flores has shown Father Philipus Tule how to heal modern religious divisions

Indonesian priest takes cultural path to religious harmony

Divine Word Father Philipus Tule wants to preserve the culture of the Keo people. (Photo supplied)

An anthropologist priest has set about preserving what he says is a dying local culture in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province through writing books, documentation and making audiovisuals. 

Much of the local history, traditions, symbols and rituals of the Keo people and other cultures are being lost because they are passed on orally and were not set in stone, said Divine Word Father Philipus Tule, 67. 

The Keo are Malayo-Polynesian people. Many reside on the Catholic-majority island of Flores.

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“I am concerned about it because many people have forgotten their cultural values,” Father Tule told UCA News, adding that once lost they will be gone forever.

Modern values are also eclipsing traditional ones, which is not entirely a good thing, said the priest who is also the rector of Widya Mandira University in Kupang, the provincial capital.

“Cultural heritage can still help young people in how they deal with modern society,” added Father Tule, who comes from Koliinggi, a village in Nagekeo district on Flores.

Traditional values such as tolerance, harmony, fraternity, friendship, mutual cooperation, empathy, humanity and peace have been the mainstay of indigenous societies since they began

He has spent years conducting research in villages and consulting with Keo community leaders as part of his work. 

“Traditional values such as tolerance, harmony, fraternity, friendship, mutual cooperation, empathy, humanity and peace have been the mainstay of indigenous societies since they began, so practices that have made them thrive must be preserved,” said Father Tule, who joined the Divine Word congregation in 1975 and was ordained in 1984.

He also wants to uphold the spirit of the Second Vatican Council which encourages Catholics to respect and protect local cultures. 

The Catholic Church helps do this in several ways such as through liturgy and preserving languages, dances and songs, to name a few.  

Father Tule has produced DVDs and written many books and journals on the Keo and other cultures, two dozen of which are being used as reference material by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.  

Other work has been published abroad. One book, Longing for the House of God, Dwelling in the House of the ancestors: local belief, Christianity and Islam among the Keo of Central Flores, was published in Switzerland. 

They are not easy to write as the main sources are people — mostly community leaders — who are a dying breed and are finding that the old way of transferring customs by word of mouth is falling on the deaf ears of an increasingly indifferent youth, Father Tule said. 

Modern influences are not helping either, he said, and have been detrimental to the social harmony that traditional customs encouraged.

“Local governments have implemented development projects without paying attention to local wisdom, which has helped destroy the traditional social organization system,” the priest said. 

He admitted that religions have also had a negative effect, pointing to radicalism, especially among Muslims.

Muslims and Catholics in villages did not know much about theology and politics before and common customs united them.

With customs being eroded, theology and politics gained greater prominence and created divisions that were harder to repair, he said, adding that he came to this conclusion through interreligious dialogue involving nine Muslim communities in several parts of the province. 

“I saw how cultural traditions supported interreligious dialogue in villages in Nagekeo district and kept people united and at peace for hundreds of years,” said the graduate of the Australian National University in Canberra and the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, Italy.

They are very tolerant and respect each other, even though they have different religions, because of local culture. It is a lesson young and future generations would do well to learn.” 

Father Tule and his university are trying to make this happen through an annual student exchange program.

During Ramadan, the university holds breaking fast events on campus. I invite a Muslim cleric to give a homily

Muslim students from other universities live and study at his campus for six months. There they can see how Catholic and Muslim students build tolerance and harmony in an environment where radicalism is absent.

It’s a program that’s being imitated by other Catholic universities in Indonesia to try and combat growing extremism among students across the country. 

According to the Ministry of Defense, 23.4 percent of about 8.3 million students in Indonesia are exposed to radicalism.  

Father Tule’s university has 8,000 students including 200 Muslims.

“During Ramadan, the university holds breaking fast events on campus. I invite a Muslim cleric to give a homily,” he said.

He hopes to demonstrate how Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti on calls for fraternity and social friendship, issued on Oct 3, 2020, can be applied.

The pope himself visited Muslim countries in the Middle East — Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Iraq — to build fraternity, Father Tule said.

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