Catholic priest and social activist Father Antonius Benny Susetyo has a close working relationship with the leader of Muslim-majority Indonesia. In June 2017, he was appointed by President Joko Widodo
as an adviser to a loosely structured group promoting communal tolerance and understanding. Sectarian tensions had surfaced earlier in the year during an election campaign for the governorship of capital Jakarta. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims joined protests against then incumbent ethnic-Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama
. He was subsequently jailed for blasphemy over comments that there were no Islamic scriptural requirements for Muslims to vote fellow Muslims into leadership positions.
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The advisory group that includes Father Susetyo looks for ways to implement Indonesia’s national Pancasila ideology stressing belief in one God and cultural pluralism. Formulated by founding President Sukarno in June 1945, Pancasila
also seeks to enhance national unity and protect democracy while ensuring social justice. However, since the fall in 1998 of Sukarno’s successor as president, Suharto, there have been calls by Muslim radicals for the creation of an Indonesian Islamic caliphate. “This is dangerous for our country,” Father Susetyo said. He represented the Catholic Church when Abdurrahman Wahid, commonly known as Gus Dur, was president between 1999 and 2001. Turning point
Father Susetyo began his involvement in social and political activities while at the Widya Sasana School of Philosophy and Theology in Malang, East Java, his hometown. A personal turning point was anti-Christian and anti-Chinese riots in Situbondo district, East Java, on Oct. 10, 1996, a week after his ordination. Strife erupted due to dissatisfaction with perceived leniency in a five-year prison sentence for a Muslim defendant, identified only as Saleh, on a charge of insulting Islam. Members of a mob accused Christians of having hidden the man and torched dozens of churches, including the Catholic Church where Father Susetyo was an assistant pastor. Several Protestant and Catholic schools, along with ethnic Chinese shops, were attacked. Five deaths were reported. The late Bishop Herman Joseph Sahadat Pandoyoputro mandated Father Susetyo to build a “true brotherhood” with Muslim leaders in the area. “It was a moment that made me realize that Catholics should reach out to other believers, particularly Muslims,” Father Susetyo said. Together with Protestant pastors and leaders of other religions, he joined interfaith gatherings that sought to ease tensions. Such encounters led him into deeper relationships with many Muslim clerics. They included Gus Dur, the grandson of Hasyim Asy'ari, founder of the mass Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama, and Said Aqil Siradj, who is now its president. Father Susetyo co-founded the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace. The institute’s main goal is to fight against discrimination and intolerance, including in relation to religion, ethnicity and gender. Father Susetyo’s humanitarian activities expanded after he was assigned as executive secretary of the Interfaith Commission of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference in 2008. Prophetic stance
Father Susetyo’s mentor, the late architect and social activist Father Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwiajaya, encouraged him to write for newspapers. “He told me that homilies from the pulpit are limited to Catholics,” Father Susetyo said. However, Mangunwiajaya had counseled that writing for newspapers would reach a wider audience. Father Susetyo has written 10 books, including on the money politics and environmental abuses that followed Suharto’s fall nearly 20 years ago. “This is a prophetic mission to speak on behalf of marginalized people — the victims,” he said. The activist priest’s involvement in President Widodo’s team provides a platform to offer moral and ethical guidance to Indonesians in general and political elites in particular. On many occasions, Father Susetyo has spoken out against the patronage and favor trading of transactional politics. To sharpen his skills, after finishing his master’s degree in political communications, he is now pursuing a doctoral degree in the same field. “The Church is about networking and it needs communicators,” he said.