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Indonesia's Christians are a long way from unity

Growing religious intolerance is a serious obstacle

Indonesia's Christians are a long way from unity

Christians gather in Jakarta to pray for an end to religious intolerance in this file photo

Published: June 05, 2013 09:08 AM GMT

Updated: May 21, 2021 11:30 AM GMT

Christian unity was a chief component of the Second Vatican Council and the subject of one of 16 decrees produced during the council’s four sessions held from 1962 to 1965.

Unitatis Redintegratio, or the decree on ecumenism, identified the “ecumenical movement” as initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity.

And yet, in Indonesia, those needs and opportunities for unity have not been fully grasped or realized.

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“The churches fight for their own interests and, therefore, become exclusive,” says Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, secretary general of the Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Indonesian bishops’ conference.

Some steps towards unity have been taken in recent years, despite the many Protestant denominations and a diversity of theology and practice.

The Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) includes 88 Protestant congregations and 15 million members – 80 percent of all Protestants in Indonesia.

The bishops’ conference and the PGI have maintained some measure of cooperation. They issue joint Easter and Christmas messages, and they further resolved to take cooperation more seriously during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.

But these steps, while important, remain superficial; particularly in an environment where religious intolerance has continued to plague society and often erupts into violence.

“The ecumenical movement should be able to answer issues of the life of the Christian churches as well as humanity, human rights, law enforcement, violence and so on,” says Fr Susetyo.

Those issues of human rights and law enforcement have now become critical, following pressure from Muslim communities over the building of new churches.

The Batak Society Christian Church (HKBP) Philadelphia has been locked in a conflict over a building permit in the Bekasi district of West Java.

After being denied it in 2007, the church's congregation was also banned from worshipping at the proposed site two years later. But in July last year the Supreme Court ruled that they were eligible for a permit.

However, it has yet to be issued and congregants attempting to worship at the site have been subject to harassment and assaults by local residents.

“Such cases should lead Christian churches to unity and to serving others hand in hand,” says Fr Susetyo.

Reverend Gomar Gultom, general secretary of the PGI, suggested a similar approach.

Instead of thinking about differences, Christian churches should find common ground on which to cooperate for the benefit of their congregants.

“The unity built among [Christian] leaders … should also embrace the grassroots,” says Rev Gultom.

Guntur Subagyo of the Communion of Baptist Churches says identifying a social need and joining forces to meet that need might be the right way to move forward towards greater unity.

“Let’s say with a healthcare program. We can organize it in our own neighborhood.”

Fr Susetyo says much more needs to be done in Indonesia to fulfill the promise of Christian unity as laid out in the Vatican II decree.

“The ecumenical movement in Indonesia still needs time to reach its full substance,” he said.


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