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What can the Indonesian Church do to ease the Papua conflict?

Bishops in the restive easternmost region must be encouraged to take a more active and pastoral approach

What can the Indonesian Church do to ease the Papua conflict?

Janius Bagau, Soni Bagau and Justinus Bagau are buried in Bilogai village on Feb. 16. The three Papuans were beaten to death by Indonesian soldiers at a clinic where Janius was seeking medical aid. (Photo supplied)

Papua recently saw a resurgence of bloody incidents, part of a series of small-scale but continuing conflicts between rebels and the Indonesian military.

In an attack that occurred in Bilogai, Intan Jaya district, on Feb. 8, a soldier and a man accused of being a military spy were shot dead. In response, three Papuans were killed on Feb. 16 at a clinic in Bilogai. The army claims they were rebels, but the West Papua National Liberation Army and local authorities have said the three men were civilians and not linked to the rebel group.

As usual, civilians bear the brunt of such recurring conflicts. Thousands are reported to have fled the latest clashes, some seeking refuge at St. Michael’s Church in Bilogai.

This latest incident adds to other mass displacements of civilians as a result of conflicts in this easternmost region.

Thousands of other people are still to return to their homes due to violence in Nduga district in 2018, triggered by the killing of several bridge project workers by rebels who accused them of being military spies. This led to the military launching a massive operation.

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According to human rights organizations, 182 civilians died during the exodus, many from starvation while seeking shelter in forests.

How long this situation remains unresolved is not easy to answer. It is certain that this litany of humanitarian issues makes efforts to achieve peace even more difficult, while distrust widens between Papua and Jakarta.

Repeated calls by the Papuan people for troops to be withdrawn or scaled back have never been heeded. Instead, more troops were deployed. For Papuans, more troops mean more oppression. Meanwhile, for Jakarta, it is essential to boost troop numbers because the government must be seen to be trying to deal with rebel groups.

Efforts that Jakarta claims will bring prosperity to Papua, including massive infrastructure developments initiated by President Joko Widodo's administration and the enactment of a special autonomy law, are seen as ploys to further control Papua.

Moreover, infrastructure development in recent years has been carried out in areas predominantly occupied by migrants, according to locals. Meanwhile, Papuans in remote areas are seeing their forests being exploited and cleared by big businesses.

Time for Church to take action

The Catholic Church in Papua has long been a respected institution that has provided much-needed services in various fields such as education and health. However, now it is being criticized because the bishops in the region and the Indonesian Bishops' Conference are accused of closing their eyes and hearts to the humanitarian problems going on there.

Criticism is even coming from priests. Recently, even the laity has been critical and said that the Vatican should be careful when choosing bishops for their territory, going so far as to say that bishops should be indigenous Papuans or those who know their situation.

It is important to see such criticism as a call for the Church to wake up so that it really becomes the voice of the voiceless.

Hopefully, this can start with the bishops' conference being more courageous and openly demanding that the government take serious steps to end the violence and listen to the aspirations of the Papuan people.

Bishops in Papua must also be encouraged to take a pastoral approach that touches various elements, including pro-independence groups, so that they can prioritize peaceful means of achieving their aspirations.

Why should it start from Jakarta? Because if this is only voiced in Papua, it will still be seen by authorities as part of moves for self-determination — such is the deepening of distrust.

The Church needs to put aside anxieties that when it talks about the conflict in Papua, there is a certain political agenda that is being fought for. 

If that is done, Catholics in Papua will likely feel the Church is embracing them again, feeling that they really are part of one church.

More than that, the Church can live out what is outlined in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes that "the joys and the hopes, the grief and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the grief and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

This is the time to dare to take steps with sincere intentions, for humanity's sake, for a better future for Papuans.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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