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The church and West Papua's struggle for self-determination

Catholic leaders need to forego silence and speak up loudly over human rights violations
The church and West Papua's struggle for self-determination

Indonesian police surround West Papuan pro-independence demonstrators during a protest by mostly university students from the Free Papua Organization and the Papua Student Alliance in Jakarta in this April 3 photo. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

Published: December 29, 2017 05:03 AM GMT
Updated: December 27, 2017 03:28 AM GMT

Published July 18, 2017 

As in Papuan society, so also in churches, there are members who opine that the western part of New Guinea has the right to be an independent state. There are also members who consider this region a province of Indonesia.

But what is the attitude of church leaders? Seen from a theological perspective, it is the duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to unify people. That's why bishops and pastors think they are not allowed to take sides.

However, the real-politics in West Papua makes it impossible for churches to remain neutral and hide their position.

Recently, leaders of three Papuan churches — The Evangelical Church of Indonesia, Baptist and Kingmi — whose members are predominantly native Papuans, gathered under the auspice of the "Ecumenical Work Forum of Papuan Churches" and released a pastoral letter condemning ongoing violence and discrimination against Papuans. These church leaders said that because of the violence, detentions, tortures and killings, "there is no future for the Papuan nation within the Indonesian system."

As far as I know, the Catholic Church has never made such a clear statement. Why is that the case? In Catholic circles, people often say, "Of course the church will not openly support the call for Papua's independence, but we unanimously reject the injustice that occurs."

This statement needs to be scrutinized. The question of Papuan independence seems to be a political subject. But the distinction between politicians' concern and the church's concern loses its relevance the moment we ask whether or not every nation has a right to own a country.

Many Papuans think about themselves as a nation and not as a tribe within the Indonesian nation. Their decolonization process was interrupted by manipulative international politics and Indonesian military infiltrations in the 1960s.

This complicated historical process, combined with military oppression, human rights violations, marginalization, and exploitation of resources caused their integration with Indonesia to feel more like a colonial occupation.

With respect to that reality, isn't it an injustice that Papua is not yet independent; shouldn't it be part of the church's concern to raise the injustice that occurs in Papua?


Non-violent struggle for self-determination

Culturally, Papuans belong to the Melanesian culture and not Malay as other tribes in Indonesia.

It also has a different historical trajectory. While Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, Papua remained under Dutch rule until 1963. The Papuans, who wanted their independence as much as other colonized nations in that era, were promised by the Dutch authorities to have an independent nation state by 1970.

At the same time, Indonesia, who claimed Papua as part of its territory, gained support from its allies, leading to the New York Agreement in 1961, which stipulated the transfer of administration of Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia. It also stipulated that Indonesia would organize a U.N. supervised referendum no later than 1970 through which the Papuans could decide to join Indonesia or have an independent state.

The referendum did take place in 1969. However, the referendum has in fact a legal defect for two reasons. First, the way it was carried out was contrary to the principle of 'one man, one vote.' The referendum was in fact an agreement made by 1,025 men and women selected by the Indonesian military administration. Instead of voting, they raised their hands or read from prepared scripts in a display for the United Nations observers. Second, the U.N. General Assembly made the result legally binding, without recognizing the abuses reported by the U.N. delegates themselves (Drooglever 2005, Saltford 2003).

My argument is: as long as the indigenous Papuans don't get what is due to them, any development and material relief from Indonesia cannot extinguish the fire of the independence struggle. It keeps burning in the heart of each of them. More and more Papuans, including Christian ones, are getting involved in non-violent struggle. They realize that armed struggle only means harm and suffering. Hence, they fight in Mahatma Gandhi's manner: non violence, ahimsa, a resistance strategy that delivered India from the evil of colonialism.


A Catholic attitude

The church does not only consist of bishops and other clergy, even according to Jayapura Diocese after its pastoral synod in the 1970's "We are the church." Nevertheless, we may hope that pastors are good shepherds who lead the way and march in front of the flock.

To the church as a whole — both leaders and members — the prophetic mission has been entrusted to blame, criticize and correct abuses, for the purpose of bringing back people and society to the right direction.

In Papua when representatives of other churches loudly protest as part of their prophetic mission, people ask: "Where is the voice of the Catholic Church"?

Often its voice cannot be heard because Catholic leaders prefer to speak with responsible "dignitaries" in the armed forces, police and government through private meetings. Many Catholic bishops and pastors consider such talk more effective than protesting publicly. They are also convinced of their duty to build bridges between the two opposing parties.

But whether such private talk is more effective than a loud protest that resounds in the media is questionable. The worsening of the human rights situation in recent years does not prove that this "Catholic approach" is more effective.

I think in order to play an important part in the church's prophetic mission, Catholics and their leaders must speak publicly and very loudly against every human rights violation in West Papua. While at the same time, respecting the political conviction of each parish member, either pro-independence or not, explain why an aspiration for independence is something genuine, especially when pursued without violence: ahimsa.


Father Nico Syukur Dister, OFM, is Professor at the "Fajar Timur" School of Philosophy and Theology in Jayapura, Papua.

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