Surabaya Christians forgive their attackers

One year on from suicide attacks on three churches that killed 13, the Easter story is alive and well
Surabaya Christians forgive their attackers

Priests stand behind photographs of bomb blast victims during a memorial service at Santa Maria Tak Bercela Church in Surabaya on May 23, 2018. A family of six staged suicide bombings at three Indonesian churches during services on May 13, killing at least 13 people and wounding dozens in attacks claimed by the Islamic State. (Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP)

Santa Maria Tak Bercela Church — or St. Mary Immaculate Church — in Surabaya on the Indonesian island of Java is a living symbolic illustration of the Easter story.

Just under a year ago, on Sunday, May 13, 2018, two teenage men drove their motorcycles laden with explosives into the gates of the church compound, shortly before the second Mass of the day. More than 30 people were injured and six killed, among them two little boys, Evan and Nathan, aged 8 and 12. The church’s Muslim security guard lost both eyes and legs in the blast, and he later told the priest: “Please forgive me because I was not able to protect the church and the people, and am unable to work again.”

Two other churches were attacked minutes later. The mother of the two teenagers, and her two daughters aged 6 and 8, with explosives strapped to them, detonated their bombs at a Protestant church, and then their father drove his bomb-filled car into a Pentecostal church.

But today, Santa Maria Tak Bercela is a thriving center of faith. At the Easter Vigil, thousands packed the church and at least 50 were baptized. As the priest sprinkled the faithful with holy water, he did it with gusto — it was a splash, not a sprinkle. Joy and faith filled the building.

I first visited this church, and the Protestant and Pentecostal churches, in August last year, three months after the tragedy. Without exception, everyone spoke of forgiveness. Father Aloysius Widyawan told me that the consistent response from all his parishioners was: “We must love others; we forgive the attackers; we do not want revenge”.

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Even the mother of young Evan and Nathan said just two days after their deaths: “I have already forgiven the bombers. I don’t want to cry anymore. I know that our Mother Mary also lost her son, Jesus. I forgive.”

As Father Aloysius said: “For the Church, we must forgive — this is our doctrine. But for an individual, like the mother of these two boys, the ability to forgive is about faith, not doctrine. None of the victims ever asked, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ They just said, ‘OK, we forgive them, and we pray for the victims.’ There was no anger, no criticism of other religions, only forgiveness. It’s not about religion, it’s about humanity, relationship. Of course, they had not conferred with each other. It came from their heart.”

I returned to Indonesia this month, primarily to observe the elections and religious intolerance in that context. Knowing that I would be in the country over Easter, I decided to spend the Triduum in Surabaya, in solidarity with the churches that had been attacked.

On Holy Thursday, I went to the evening Mass, but foolishly I did not anticipate the crowds. I arrived about 10 minutes before it began. I knew I was cutting it fine, and had been delayed by traffic, but I was unprepared for what I found. I am so used to turning up at Mass in Britain just on time and having no problem getting a seat. But here, not only did I stand absolutely no chance whatsoever of getting anywhere near the inside of the church itself, but for the first 20 minutes I could not even get inside the church compound.

There was an overflow from the church in the compound, with an estimated 2,000 sitting outside in a marquee and in side chapels and in every possible corner. But there was also an overflow from the overflow, with about 500 people crowded at the gate and spilling out into the street. I stood outside the gate with the crowds before ushers let people in slowly, a few at a time, as they scrambled to find any extra space possible. I was finally directed to the Chapel of Our Lady, where I joined others sitting on the floor.

The Mass from the main church was broadcast on television screens all around the compound. It was a place teeming with life, love, faith and joy.

On Good Friday, having learned my lesson, I arrived an hour early. I was able to get into the church, but even an hour before the start I only just managed to get a seat — and that was along a side aisle. As I waited for an hour, I reflected first on what Father Aloysius told me last August. As he opened the door of an upstairs room in the church, he told me: “Three months ago, this room was completely filled with blood, body parts, teeth, even the faces of the bombers, strewn by the force of the blast.”

As I waited and prayed, I turned to the Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, and these words struck me: “I am totally in accord with Your will; do with me as You please, O Lord, but only grant me the grace of loving You more and more ardently. This is what is most precious to me. I desire nothing but You, O Love Eternal! It matters not along what paths You will lead me, paths of pain or paths of joy. I want to love You at every moment of my life.”

Later she writes that the soul “knows the whole depth of the Unfathomable One, and the deeper this knowledge, the more ardently the soul desires Him. Great is the mutual exchange between the soul and God … Every grace gives the soul power and strength to act, and courage to suffer. The soul knows very well what God is asking of it, and it carries out His holy will despite adversities … My goal is God … and my happiness is in accomplishing His will, and nothing in the world can disturb this happiness for me: no power, no force of any kind.”

She later writes: “And God has given me to understand that there is but one thing that is of infinite value in His eyes, and that is love of God; love, love and once again, love; and nothing can compare with a single act of pure love of God … Love knows no fear … It will fear no one. It reaches God and is immersed in Him as in its sole treasure.”

I turned to the words of St Augustine: “Let us admire, congratulate, rejoice, love, praise, adore; because through the death of our Redeemer we are called from darkness to light, from death to life, from exile to home, from grief to everlasting joy”.

And St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Who is the one that is not filled with hope of obtaining confidence and courage when he gazes trustfully on the position of our Lord’s crucified body? His head is bent to give us the kiss of peace, his arms extended to receive us, his hands pierced to pour his blessings upon us, his heart opened to love us, his feet nailed to the cross to soften our hearts and remain with us.”

As thousands of people sat listening to the readings, knelt in prayer, kissed the Cross and received the Sacrament of Holy Communion, it was clear to me that they knew what their treasure was, and that despite the trauma and tragedy of a year ago, they were filled with a love that knows no fear. 

My Holy Week began with Palm Sunday in another church with a similar story. On Sunday, Aug. 29, 2016, St. Joseph’s Church in Medan, North Sumatra, was attacked by a man who detonated a bomb as the priest was beginning to read the Gospel, and then unleashed a sword and a machete and attacked the priest at the altar. Mercifully, the bomb didn’t explode, only singeing his own hair, and the priest only sustained minor cuts, as the man was overpowered quickly.

On Palm Sunday this year, St. Joseph’s was a place of inspiring faith, love, life, joy and worship. It was the sixth anniversary of my own reception into the Church, which took place at the hands of Myanmar’s Cardinal Bo in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, on March 24, 2013, so it was an extra-special occasion for me.

As I stood outside waiting for the Palm Sunday procession to begin, holding a beautiful long green palm, I jokingly told my Indonesian Lutheran friend who had accompanied me that we should follow the crowd but hope that we don’t accidentally end up in the choir. We both laughed. As it turned out, there was nowhere to sit except behind the choir. And they were no ordinary church choir — they are a renowned group, known as ‘Magnificat,’ who among other things have been invited by Pope Francis to sing for him in the Vatican in 2021.

At the Easter Vigil in Surabaya, as I waited for Mass to begin, I read some more of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. She writes: “Love is a mystery that transforms everything it touches into things beautiful and pleasing to God. The love of God makes a soul free”.

The people of Santa Maria Tak Bercela in Surabaya went through their Calvary in May last year but have clearly also experienced their Resurrection. The same is true of St. Joseph’s in Medan. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

While we must redouble our fight for religious freedom and against persecution and hatred, we should also pause to learn something from Christians on the frontline, for they have much to teach us. They seem to know that mystery of love, and this Easter in Surabaya they made it known to everyone there to see.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at human rights organization CSW and author of ‘Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril — the rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago’ (2014). He became a Catholic in Myanmar in 2013 and is the author of ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’ (2015).

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