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Indonesia

Papuan priests gang up against injustice, racism

Indigenous group of clerics aims to ensure the Church does not remain silent about abuses in Indonesia's Papua region

Papuan priests gang up against injustice, racism

Father Alberto John Bunay (center), chairman of the Papuan indigenous priest group. (Photo supplied)

Racial violence and discrimination against Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, encouraged Father Alberto John Bunay and his fellow indigenous Papuan priests to establish a forum to speak out against such prejudice and injustice. 

Some 43 Papuan students were assaulted and subjected to racial abuse while being arrested after being accused of desecrating an Indonesian flag in the country’s second-largest city on Aug. 16 last year.

Local people called them “monkeys,” “pigs” and “dogs” as they were led away. The incident led to rioting in Papua and protests in other cities in Indonesia.

“These shocking incidents spurred us priests to establish the group,” said Father Bunay, 51, who was ordained a priest for Jayapura Diocese in 2001.

At least 65 indigenous Papuan priests from dioceses across Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost region, have joined the group.  

They say they want to play an important role in preventing violence or stop it from spiraling out of control if provocative or violent incidents occur in a region plagued by a low-level insurgency against Indonesian rule.

Indonesian authorities have often been accused of human rights abuses against suspected insurgents and civilians by adopting a heavy-handed approach to suppressing it.   

“We convey moral messages through various platforms such as mainstream and social media or homilies. We won’t speak on politics but focus on the human aspect and what is happening with the people,” said the priest from Papua province’s Paniai regency. 

‘Controversial’ autonomy status

Father Bunay, who is also a lecturer at the Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology in Abepura, said Papuans are one big family. “As one, we don’t want [any of us] to be treated unfairly,” the priest said. 

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He said Papuans have experienced discrimination for a long time and are fighting against injustices that have often led to them being stigmatized, arrested imprisoned and even being shot or killed.

Papua’s status as a special autonomy region — a status the government is seeking to renew next year — has caused many problems. Despite receiving government funds under this status, Papuans are still poor 20 years after special autonomy status was declared. 

The priest said Indonesian President Joko Widodo must re-evaluate the special autonomy law, particularly on funds used by local governments, because grassroots people know very little about the funds. This has raised concerns over graft, so people are against extending autonomy status because it does not have a positive impact on their lives.

The central government allocated 95 trillion rupiah (US$650 million) for Papua during that time, of which churches in the predominantly Christian region got 10 percent.

“[We] priests once called for a transparent audit of these funds and for the results to be made available to the public,” Father Bunay said.

Church has been silent

Father Bunay said one of the reasons his group was established was because the bishops did not speak up against injustices suffered by the Papuan people.

He called on bishops in Papua to speak out, saying if they needed more information about violence and other injustices being inflicted on people in the region, all they had to do was ask for it from the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity and Creation organization which monitors and logs such incidents.

The presence of this group, he said, can help the Catholic Church in Papua overcome what many say has been its reluctance to speak out against human rights abuses in Papua since the deaths of Archbishop Herman Ferdinandus Maria Munninghoff of Merauke and Bishop Philip Saklil of Timika.

Father Bunay says the indigenous priests plan to meet soon with the four current bishops in Papua — Bishop Datus Lega of Manokwari-Sorong, Bishop Aloysius Murwito of Agats-Asmat, Archbishop-elect Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke, and Franciscan Bishop Leo Laba Ladjar of Jayapura. 

They also hope to meet the apostolic administrator of Timika, Father Marthen Kuayo.

“We want to convey the vision and mission of the group to the bishops,” he said.

Prophetic voice 

Father Bunay, who is also the coordinator of the Papuan Peace Network (JDP), said the presence of the indigenous group will help the network offer a prophetic voice if and when unpleasant incidents take place.

“We want to build cooperation between the military, police, indigenous people, youths and community leaders so that there is peace here,” he said. “But we won’t get involved in politics, so are not afraid to voice the truth.” 

Yuliana Langowuyo, director of the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) in Papua, said Father Bunay and his group are a welcome addition to those voices expressing concern over what is happening.

“The situation is difficult in Papua and they are hoping for a church that can protect them,” she said. “The voices of Father John Bunay and other priests, nuns and bishops from the five dioceses in Papua are important to Papuans.” 

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