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Why visiting Indonesia should top Pope Francis' list

Heading to the largest Muslim-majority nation would give greater impetus to efforts for human fraternity

Why visiting Indonesia should top Pope Francis' list

Pope Francis adjusts his skull cap as he prepares to disembark from a plane as he arrives at Yangon International Airport for a visit to Myanmar on Nov. 27, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

Pope Francis was supposed to visit Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea late last year, but the trip was canceled when the world succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pope’s eagerness to make the trip was revealed to respected Muslim cleric Yahya Cholil Staquf of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, after he met Pope Francis at the Vatican in early 2019 to discuss ways to address interreligious conflicts.

It prompted Indonesian President Joko Widodo to send a formal invitation to Pope Francis in January last year.

All the hopes raised suddenly faded due to the pandemic, but people’s enthusiasm to welcome the 84-year-old pontiff to Indonesia remains high.

Assurances by the Vatican’s representative to Timor-Leste, Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, last month that the pope would visit the Catholic-majority nation some time next year rekindled the hope he would visit Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population and is on the way to becoming the epicenter of the global Islamic movement.

There’s no exact time frame for a visit, but Monsignor Sprizzi told reporters that Pope Francis hoped to visit the tiny nation next year on condition that the Covid-19 situation has improved and everyone has been inoculated.

The document is a historic milestone in relations between Christianity and Islam. It declared the adoption of a culture of dialogue, cooperation and reciprocal understanding

Nearly one-third of Timor-Leste’s 1.3 million people have been vaccinated, while Indonesia, as of Aug.1 had inoculated 67 million people or 24.5 percent of its population. The government hopes to vaccinate 181 million of its 270 million people to gain herd immunity.

Setting aside the pandemic, there are important reasons why Pope Francis should visit Indonesia.

Indonesia is important not only for being the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, with 87.2 percent of its population following Islam, but also has long-standing relations with the Vatican, established after independence in 1947, and dynamic Christian communities.
 
On many occasions, Pope Francis has emphasized brotherhood with Muslims. During an apostolic visit to the Middle East in early 2019, the pope and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed the Document on Human Fraternity and Living Together in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The document is a historic milestone in relations between Christianity and Islam. It declared the adoption of a culture of dialogue, cooperation and reciprocal understanding. Above all, it unites Christians and Muslims on a mission of rediscovering and promoting the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence that were cast aside by violence and terrorism.

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It was quickly picked up by Christian and Muslim communities around the world, including Indonesia.

It didn’t take long for Nahdlatul Ulama to adopt the document. Chairman Said Aqil Siradj said his organization is committed to supporting the Vatican-Al Azhar agreement. He said the nature of the document is basically in line with its own mission to not only promote Muslim brotherhood but also national unity and universal human fraternity.

Indonesia’s Muslim and Christian leaders later organized a series of meetings on how to make the ideals contained in the document touch the lives of ordinary people.

Indonesian bishops devoted their time during their annual assembly in November 2019 to study the document and how to apply it.

Because of the document’s special nature and the contribution of both leaders to humankind, the State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta planned to award Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb an honorary doctorate.

The government backs the move and could see both leaders invited to the country to receive their doctorates.

Whether this will be possible or not, it shows the pope is highly regarded by the Indonesian people and should take this opportunity to visit to strengthen Muslim-Christian bonds not only in Indonesia but throughout the world. A visit would help enhance the standing of Indonesian Muslims around the world.

Pope Francis' visit is needed much more now to boost faith in such values and help push back the tide of extremism and terrorist threats

Indonesia has long-standing relations with the Holy See that started soon after Indonesia declared independence. The Vatican was among the first nations that acknowledged Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch.

In return, then president Sukarno allowed the Vatican to open an apostolic mission in Indonesia in 1947. Sukarno even visited the Vatican three times: in 1956 to meet Pope Pius XII, in 1959 to meet Pope John XXIII, and in 1964 to see Pope Paul VI.

Another Indonesian president to visit the Vatican was Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur in 2000.

If Pope Francis comes, he will be the third pope to visit Indonesia after Pope Paul VI in 1970 and Pope St. John Paul II in 1989. The latter also visited Timor-Leste, which was still under Indonesian rule at the time.

The previous papal visits promoted interfaith harmony, social justice, religious freedom, democracy, human rights and the development of religious and cultural pluralism in Indonesia.

Pope Francis' visit is needed much more now to boost faith in such values and help push back the tide of extremism and terrorist threats facing Indonesia and other parts of the world.

His visit will also highlight the special appreciation the universal Church has for the Indonesian government’s efforts to prioritize dialogue and interfaith harmony in order to avoid conflicts in society often triggered by ethnic, racial and religious issues.

It would be better if the pope comes to Indonesia soon after the pandemic is over. Postponing it could mean losing a great opportunity to make the most of the Abu Dhabi human fraternity document and his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which calls for human fraternity and solidarity between the Christian and Muslim communities in Indonesia.

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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