Father John Bunay (center), coordinator of the Papua Peace Network, speaks at a press conference on July 21. (Photo supplied)
More than 50 indigenous priests have joined civil groups in opposing the extension of special autonomy status in Indonesia’s restive Papua region and called for an independence referendum.
Some 57 priests from four dioceses say a special autonomy law in effect in the region since 2001 has not improved the lives of the Papuan people.
Despite this law, human rights abuses have continued, they said in a statement issued on July 21.
Father John Bunay, their spokesman and coordinator of the Papua Peace Network, said the problem with Jakarta is that it only sees the law in terms of allocating money, which has had an insignificant impact on the lives of Papuans, who remain the nation’s poorest people.
The central government has ignored the human aspect of Papua, he said.
"In reality, what is written in the law about human rights issues is not working," he told UCA News on July 23.
The law, which is considered Jakarta’s response to Papuans’ demand for independence, requires the allocation of a special budget totaling 95 trillion rupiah (US$650 million) as well as an obligation to stop human rights abuses.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has asked to extend Papua’s special autonomy status. Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian said discussions on the matter will be completed before the end of the year.
The priests said that the majority of Papuan people do not agree with an extension and want self-determination.
Citing Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, the priests said the joy and hope, suffering and anxiety of the Papuans were their joy and hope, sorrow and anxiety. "We do not speak out for ourselves but for Papuan children and grandchildren,” they said.
They, along with 23 civil groups, proposed a dialogue between Papuan representatives and Jakarta on the possibility of a referendum.
"Instead of continuing with conflict, why not hold a referendum? We only want that our people will not be killed anymore,” said Father Bunay, also the coordinator of the Papua Peace Network.
Father Bunay said the views expressed by the priests were their own and not necessarily in line with those of their bishops and religious superiors. “There are bishops who have expressed support for our movement,” he said
He said a copy of their statement was sent to the Indonesian Bishops' Conference and other church institutions.
Father Gabriel Ngga, provincial of the Franciscans in Papua, said he knew some of his priests were among the 57 but declined to comment further regarding their demands.
He told UCA News that “there was no internal conflict within the order regarding the indigenous Papuan priests.”
Siprianus Bunai, of the Catholic organization Vox Populi Institute in Papua, supported the priests, saying they were “voicing the concerns of many oppressed Papuans."
"As a Papuan and a Catholic, I feel my voice is being represented by them," he said.