Bishop on the growing violence against Christians in West Africa

The third Plenary Assembly of the bishops of West Africa took place in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, from 13 to 20 May. The assembly was overshadowed by severe terrorist attacks that have shaken the country.

Bishop Martin Happe, a native of Germany who is head of the diocese of Nouakchott in Mauritania, took part in the assembly of bishops at Burkina Faso. Volker Niggewöhner, a journalist of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, discussed the dramatic events with the missionary to Africa.

ACN: Bishop Happe, several assassinations have been carried out within a short period of time. How did the attendees of the assembly of bishops react to this?

BISHOP MARTIN HAPPE: In spite of these dramatic events, more than one hundred bishops from several West African countries came to the assembly at Burkina Faso. It was a sign of encouragement for the Church and the entire country. Burkina Faso is not the only place suffering violence; it can be found throughout the region. The violence is being incited by Islamist fundamentalists, who are trying to stir up conflict between the ethnic groups as well as between Catholics and Muslims. No one knows for sure who is behind it. However, it must also be said: the victims of this wave of violence are mostly Muslims.

What makes the Christians a target for terrorists?

Before I came to Mauritania, I worked in Mali for 22 years, mostly in the northern part of the country. This was when the attacks started happening there. The fundamentalists specifically targeted the small Christian minority. However, it should also be pointed out that up to 160 000 Muslim refugees from Mali sought refuge in Mauritania. These Muslims are also considered “heretics” by fundamentalists because they are not followers of Wahhabism and fundamentalist Islam. Of course, for the terrorists, non-Muslims are far worse. That is why they primarily target Christians.

“We will not let them divide us”.

“We will not let them divide us”.

Is religious fanaticism the only reason for persecution or are there also others?

Religious fanaticism is often just an excuse. Everything revolves around natural resources, around political power. It is a very complex issue.

How do the Christians react to the terrorism?

Over the last few days, both the West African bishops and the government in Burkina Faso have clearly stated: we will not let them divide us. They will not be able to separate us into different religious and ethnic groups. Because that is exactly what the terrorists want to see happen.

Do you see ways, for example to ensure that the more moderate proponents of Islam are given opportunities to state their views?

That is a decisive point. In the concluding statement issued by the assembly, we bishops wrote that religious leaders have to work together towards mutual goals. We have to unite and take a clear stand: anyone who kills in the name of God cannot proclaim themselves a messenger from God. We have to promote this solidarity, which already exists. It is the only instrument we have to take action against violence.

West Africa is a highly diverse region in terms of the prevailing circumstances. There are countries with a Christian majority population such as Ghana. And there are countries in which the Christians represent a small minority, as is the case in Mauritania. What is the situation there?

In Mauritania, the government and people set great store by the fact that they are an Islamic and not an Islamist republic. Islamism is strictly monitored. Attacks have been planned, but these were discovered and thwarted before they could be carried out. As a Catholic bishop, I travel all over the country and am not afraid. However, I do not know how long this will last.

For almost 25 years the ACN Foundation supports the Church of Mauritania with different projects.

For almost 25 years the ACN Foundation supports the Church of Mauritania with different projects.

What can we Christians in Europe do?

Show solidarity, that is important. The Church in Mauritania, for example, is miniscule with only about 4000 Catholics. It is very important that we receive visits, that people show interest, keep themselves informed and pray for us.

For almost 25 years the ACN Foundation supports the Church of Mauritania with different projects. At the moment, in addition to the support for the maintenance of priests and religious, ACN co-finances the repair work of the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Nouakchott, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The turmoil continues in Nigeria. Reports of the defeat of the terrorist group “Boko Haram” contradict what the priest John Bakeni experiences every day. The priest is responsible for coordinating aid for survivors of terrorist attacks and displaced persons in his native diocese of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria. The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been working closely together with him for many years.

While the threat of terrorist attacks is omnipresent in the north, in Central Nigeria, attacks on Christian farmers by the predominantly Muslim nomads from the tribe of the Fulani are becoming ever more frequent. According to the project partners of ACN, anti-religious sentiments can also be found behind disputes over land.

Roman Kris from the youth magazine “f1rstlife” talked with John Bakeni about the current situation.

Nigeria, March 2017  Father John Bakeni explains the happenings of 2009 at the mosque in the capital of Borno State (Maiduguri) that served as a sect headquarters is burnt down.

Nigeria, March 2017 Father John Bakeni explains the happenings of 2009 at the mosque in the capital of Borno State (Maiduguri) that served as a sect headquarters is burnt down.

Roman Kris: Father John, Boko Haram is considered one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorist groups in the world. Recently, attacks on Christian farmers by Fulani shepherds have been occurring more frequently. What is the current situation?

Unfortunately, not much has changed. A large number of villages are still under attack. Even as we speak, people are being killed and their property destroyed. The fact that the people in rural areas are no longer able to cultivate their fields is deeply concerning. They are afraid of being kidnapped or killed. The state of safety in the nation is becoming ever more precarious.

Which dangers and challenges do you personally face?

The persecution of the Christian minority has been a problem in northern Nigeria for a long time. It ranges from political exclusion and the refusal to approve properties for the building of churches to the kidnapping and forced marriage of young girls as an act of calculated violence. The attacks on Christians are growing more flagrant and more aggressive. The ongoing conflict with Boko Haram and the attacks by predominantly Islamist Fulani shepherds have instilled a feeling of great uncertainty and fear in us Nigerians. We consider each day we live in safety a blessing, because we do not know what will happen the next day. It is very difficult to be a Christian in this part of the world, but our faith encourages us to bravely bear witness to the Gospel.

Nigeria, March 2017 - Visit to Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) IDP Camp.

Nigeria, March 2017 – Visit to Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) IDP Camp.

Today, the persecution of Christians is growing worse in many places. How do the state and civil society deal with the terrorism in Nigeria? Which kinds of aid, measures and strategies are or should be in place?

Christianity is experiencing difficult times all over the world. It is sad that countries that were once trailblazers and were developed on a foundation of Christian values are turning away from the faith. In Nigeria, the state is not putting forth much effort when it comes to the protection and safety of the lives and property of Christians. We citizens, no matter whether we are Christians or Muslims, expect the state to protect us and ensure our safety. This is the only way that people can go about their business without fear or reservations.

How does the Church in Nigeria help the people who are suffering from terrorism and where does it get the support it needs to do this?

In my diocese of Maiduguri, we receive a great deal of solidarity from other dioceses in Nigeria. But the greatest support comes from other countries, in particular from ACN and other organisations. Moreover, several dioceses in the US have helped us by allowing us to personally bear witness in their parishes. Countries such as Hungary have also sent us aid.

These are the widows of Boko Haram victims helped by the Diocese of Maiduguri.

These are the widows of Boko Haram victims helped by the Diocese of Maiduguri.

How would you describe the relationship between Islamism and Islam? Can and is it necessary for the peaceful majority of Muslims to become more active?

Islamism is a distortion of Islam. The silence of the Islamic majority is disturbing. The people should confront Islamism and denounce it.

What can we do here in Europe to help the hard-pressed and suffering Christians in Nigeria?

First and foremost, pray for us. Secondly, support us financially and make resources available to us so that Christians can continue to keep the faith even in difficult situations. Thirdly, the European governments need to convince our government to strengthen the democratic institutions that promote the rule of law, religious freedom and the freedom of assembly for all.

Nigeria is one of the focal countries for Aid to the Church in Need on the African continent. The pontifical foundation funds a variety of projects, including support for destitute families who have lost family members during terrorist attacks and the rebuilding of church facilities that have been destroyed.

On her return from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she visited the Catholic dioceses of the Kasai region, Christine du Coudray, ACN’s section heads for this country, reported on the situation in the region and gave her impressions.

 Can you give us a description of the overall situation in the country?

This was the first time I had visited the Kasai region of this immense country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, four times the size of France in area. You’re walking on land rich in mineral wealth of every kind – diamonds, gold, minerals of all kinds, petroleum and so forth, yet the infrastructure is wrecked. This particular region, which I spent two weeks travelling, is particularly isolated, and some areas are isolated enclaves. In the country as a whole, the state of the roads, where they exist at all, is catastrophic, but I really found this particular region to be in a state of complete desolation. Historically, this was a privileged region during the time of King Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, who founded the Congo Free State in 1885. He made it his shop window and gave hundreds of hectares of land to the Catholic Church, which he wanted to see established in the country. The Scheutist Fathers (Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) in particular were there in numbers, and in every diocese one can still see today the remains of the buildings built by these missionaries. Later the tables were turned, and the region was punished after independence, under the regime of Mobutu and afterwards, suffering from under-investment and generally abandoned to its fate. The structures are falling apart. The Kivu region, on the frontier with Rwanda, which I know better, is suffering from still worse conflicts, but benefits from having more and better structures.

Christine du Coudray and Mgr. Emery Kibal.

Christine du Coudray and Mgr. Emery Kibal.

The situation you describe sounds pretty desperate. How were the people you met on the spot living?

What struck me was the situation of complete abandonment on the one hand, yet on the other hand the local people displayed incredible energy in coping with the situation. I’m thinking of the young people who set out, sometimes from Lake Tanganyika, in the extreme east of the DRC, pushing their bicycles with loads of up to 500 kg of goods piled on them which they plan to sell on the other side of the country. They walk for days and nights like this on the potholed roads, helping each other as they go. I met with one of these young men, who explained to me that he had managed to save up enough for a brand-new bicycle, so that he could also become a “bayanda” – that’s the name they give to these young human beasts of burden – and that he was going to have to make still more savings in order to be able to change his wheels, so that he could carry still heavier loads.

After years as leader of the country, Joseph Kabila finally decided not to stand for the presidential elections last December, partly under pressure from the strong opposition, particularly on the part of the Church. How was this change of decision received by the Catholic leadership in the DRC?

Within the Catholic Bishops’ Conference there was some fairly lively discussion, and this body, which had deployed thousands of observers in the polling stations around the country, finally published a communique stating that in its view the election of the new president, Felix Tshisekedi, had not been in accordance with the “truth of the ballot”. They made it clear that they were pleased to see the political transition, but at the same time considered that the candidate declared as the victor was not necessarily the person who had received the most votes according to their own observations. But the most important thing to be borne in mind was that this change in the head of state is a historical one and that the transition took place almost without any violence. In January everyone had expected that the announcement of the results by the electoral commission would trigger an explosion of violence, and observers continue to be surprised that there has not been. That said, Joseph Kabila is still very much a part of the political scene and the present “truce” is a fragile one.

What is the situation of the Catholic Church, both in the country and within this particular region?

In the Kasai region there are eight dioceses, But for the moment there are only seven bishops, because the diocese of Kabinda is in a state of transition. Of these eight dioceses three, in my view, are in a particularly bad way, namely Kabinda, Mweka and Kole. In addition to its own internal problems, the Church here has to make up for the deficiencies of the state and is at the forefront of all the civic activities – social, political, development and so forth. For example, the town of Kabinda suffers from a terrible problem of soil erosion – it is literally in danger of collapsing – and it is the diocese that is leading the efforts to try and resolve this problem.

Congo. “What ACN offers, no other organization does”.

Congo. “What ACN offers, no other organization does”.

What particularly impressed you during this trip?

On the one hand it was the fact that a region so rich in diamonds could be suffering such poverty, yet on the other hand it was the commitment of many of the priests, who are doing exceptional work. I’m thinking of Father Apollinaire Cibaka and his association, which he founded and which is doing wonderful work. They have built 62 schools, four orphanages and four health centres, one of which has its own operating theatre and the regular support of Spanish doctors; then the pastoral work with albino children, helping them to be recognised in their own right, the work with abandoned children or street children, with teenage mothers and the programmes for the advancement of women. The construction of an enclosure wall round the local prison, so that the prisoners do not have to be locked up 24 hours a day in a dark, unlit building, the work for the protection of the environment, including the planting of 30,000 trees… We helped Abbé Apollinaire to complete his studies for a doctorate in Spain, and on his return we helped him to set up a radio station, which is an authoritative voice in the local society. So despite the isolation, despite the difficulties, the courage and energy of the people are impressive and admirable. That is why a visit like this one is so very important.

And what would you say was the most difficult moment?

I was horrified to learn that, just a few hours after our visit there, the philosophy seminary in Kabwe had been attacked and vandalised. This is an indication of the fragile situation of the local Church.

What kind of aid is ACN supplying to the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Given the many issues requiring assistance, we are liaising closely with the bishops in order to decide with them on their various projects and assess their priorities in light of our resources. The important thing is that, following our visit, we can provide our aid rapidly. We are concentrating our support on the spiritual formation of the priests and on their living conditions, and likewise on the formation of religious sisters and catechists and the implementation of the teachings of Pope St John Paul II in regard to the family.

What kind of aid is ACN giving to the priests and seminarians?

We want to do all we can so that the Church here can have holy priests. A bishop once said to me, “What ACN offers, is something no other organisation offers.” The structures vary greatly from one seminary to another. For example, in the philosophy college in Kabwe there are no toilets, no showers, and the septic tank is blocked up. It is hard to leave them in conditions like that. The seminarians only eat meat once a term.

As to the formation of the future priests, which is truly one of the priorities of ACN, we think that this depends on the formation of the teaching staff in the seminaries. And so we are sending entire teams of formators for a five-week training course in Rome each summer. Quite apart from the fact that they can in this way live the experience of the universal Church, together with other formators from all over the world, they learn to live, work and pray together there. Their testimonies of the sense of satisfaction and spiritual renewal there make for moving reading.

As far as their living conditions are concerned, we are providing vehicles to enable the local Church to reach the furthest corners of their dioceses. And sometimes even just a moped will help priests to travel much further than they can ever do on foot. We are also helping the priests with Mass stipends and contributing to the renovation and improvement of their presbyteries, which are frequently in a shocking state and which they scarcely dare to show us.

But you have also mentioned the support for religious brothers and sisters. What form does this aid actually take?

We are also very responsive to the needs of the religious, and especially the contemplative religious, who play a major role in the growth of the Church, thanks to their presence and their prayer. I visited the communities of the contemplative Poor Clare sisters in Mbuji-Mayi and Kabinda. They are a French foundation, formerly supported by their mother house, but today totally dependent on their own resources. It is not easy to provide the daily necessities for 40 religious sisters, including the novices and the postulants. They have a vegetable garden, they rear pigs and poultry, they have a host baking workshop. And they also have a guest house, offering a place of silence and prayer that is open to all. Their convent is some way from the town of Mbujimayi, and sometimes the sisters need hospital care. And there is also necessary shopping to be done, for which they need a robust 4×4 vehicle which we are hoping to be able to help them with.

Congo was a privileged region during the time of King Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, who founded the Congo Free State in 1885.

Congo was a privileged region during the time of King Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, who founded the Congo Free State in 1885.

Does ACN have any projects linked to the various internal wars and conflicts within the country?

Ever since 2016 the Kasaï region has been the theatre of tribal violence of exceptional cruelty; even the ethnologists are puzzled by these outbreaks of brutality, which mingle political issues with fetishist pagan beliefs. It is thought that the Kamwina Nsapu movement alone may have claimed between 4,000 and 23,000 victims, leaving some 1.4 million people uprooted and homeless as a result. The conflict suddenly came to an end with the election of the new president in January 2019, who is a son of the region. But the consequences are enormous, whether visible or invisible.

The visible scars can be seen because, for example, the diocesan structures in Luebo became the target – with the Bishop’s house set on fire, the convent of the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the cathedral both burnt out after first being looted, the presbytery destroyed, the novice house and the propedeutic seminary both burnt to ashes, official buildings ransacked and looted, many people with their throats cut… Since June 2017 the Bishop has had to take refuge in the parish of Ndeseka. We have promised to help rebuild his diocesan chancery and the convent of the sisters, whose role is so important in helping the traumatised population.

The invisible wounds are in people’s hearts, but they are going to need a long-term programme of re-integration for people of all ages – some of the killers were children of seven years old, who after just having served Mass beheaded as the people caming out of the church, they were under the effect of drugs! In light of these events of such enormous and still “unexplained” violence, the Catholic Church now needs to reconsider its pastoral approach and work for an in-depth evangelisation, so that Christ may truly reign in people’s hearts through the grace of a profound and personal encounter. ACN’s mission is to accompany the local Church in this new evangelisation.

Following initial talks in Oslo (Norway), Venezuela seems to be moving towards change. These meetings represent an attempt to solve the crisis in Venezuela together with the government of a neutral European country. According to José Virtuoso, rector of Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas (Venezuela), these are “exploratory talks” between the representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro on the one hand and the opposition on the other. As the Jesuit priest explained in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), they are a “small ray of hope”.

  1. How confident are you about the talks being held in Oslo?
  2. We know that informal meetings between the opposition and Maduro’s government have already taken place. If anything, these were exploratory talks – no commitments were made. However, the talks in Oslo imply the “official” commitment of a government, specifically, that of the government of Norway. This can be considered positive.

Secondly, it also shows that both President Maduro’s government and President Guaidó are open to exploring possibilities for reaching an understanding. Anything that has even the slightest chance of resolving the Venezuelan crisis needs to be considered.

Crisis in Venezuela: “A small ray of hope”.

Crisis in Venezuela: “A small ray of hope”.

  1. However, these talks are currently at a very early stage. Have any concrete measures been proposed?

Nothing definite has been suggested. A decision has not even been made on how to proceed. Steps have only been taken towards holding exploratory talks. All involved – both the Norwegian government as well as Maduro’s government and President Guaidó – have talked about an exploratory process. We are still far away from a process of dialogue or negotiation.

  1. Does the progress that has been made towards rapprochement have anything to do with the step taken by Juan Guaidó on 30 April, when he called on the army to support him?
  2. In my opinion, what has become clear since 30 April is that we are at an impasse: neither Maduro’s government nor Interim President Guaidó have made any progress. We now have to look for other ways out of this deadlock, we have to find other possibilities.
  3. What is the standpoint of the Church? Almost two years ago, the Church was involved in the attempts to start a dialogue. However, the Church later withdrew because it felt that it was being exploited…
  4. Past attempts – the talks in which the Vatican initially took part and later the talks between the government and the opposition in Santo Domingo – all failed. I don’t believe that these meetings were properly prepared for and developed.

For example, if we take a look at Columbia: there, the talks and agreements between the Columbian government and the FARC were the culmination of a very long and meticulously prepared process. These talks only took place when all parties were genuinely interested in negotiating. The same cannot be said about Venezuela at the moment. This willingness first has to be developed and strengthened.

The process should not be pushed forward too quickly, because that makes it too easy to abandon. We have to try to build a solid foundation to enable an agreement. That is why I say that it will be a slow, a difficult process. But I believe that the Venezuelans finally want it to happen.

  1. Based on past experiences, do you believe that things will be different this time because Nicolás Maduro has realised that things cannot continue as they are at the moment?
  2. I believe that not only the opposition, but the Venezuelans as a whole are watching the progress of these processes very closely and with a great deal of scepticism. The government is still adamantly refusing to recognise both the opposition and the possibility of a deal. This is why we continue to view the situation with scepticism. However, this is the route we seem to be taking. As a small ray of hope has appeared, I believe that we now have to keep it from being extinguished and instead keep it shining brightly.
  3. "Following initial talks in Oslo (Norway), Venezuela seems to be moving towards change".

    “Following initial talks in Oslo (Norway), Venezuela seems to be moving towards change”.

I believe that the international community and also the United States, which have taken a tougher stance, agree that a peaceful solution is much better than a violent one. That is also the standpoint of the Church: relief, assistance and the establishment of the conditions necessary to resolve the Venezuelan conflict peacefully.

  1. Let’s talk about the situation of the general population. The international press reported on the nationwide blackouts that persisted for days. What is the current situation in the country in terms of energy and food?
  2. In the large cities, in particular those located in the centre of the country such as Caracas and other important cities, the power supply is back to normal. However, the situation is more dramatic in the border regions. At the border with Columbia, in Zulia state, the power supply is deplorable. Although it is the country’s most densely populated state with the second most important city, the power supply remains erratic. A similar situation can be found in the two western states Táchira and Mérida, where a large part of the population lives.
  3. Maduro has now given the Red Cross permission to enter the country to provide humanitarian aid. Is this a solution?
  4. In practice, the humanitarian aid is greatly curtailed; that is, a number of medical goods and generators were brought into the country for hospitals, which is good. However, I have the feeling that many countries would like to get a lot more involved by sending medical supplies, medicines and food to the people, but they do not have the possibility to do so.
  5. As rector of the university you are very concerned about education: what is happening in this area?

I am very concerned about the deteriorating educational system in Venezuela. Children and adolescents cannot attend classes regularly, either because of problems with transportation or food. Our schools, secondary schools and universities are suffering terrible consequences from the emigration of teachers and professors. Getting a degree in Venezuela is practically a heroic feat.

  1. We have been talking about the situation in Venezuela for almost two years now. People may one day say, “Well, nothing can be done.” How do you avoid becoming discouraged?
  2. Venezuela urgently needs the world’s support. Many Europeans came to Venezuela after World War II and during the terrible 1950s, the years of reconstruction. I myself am the son of a European immigrant, an Italian from Sicily. Many Venezuelans are the children or grandchildren of immigrants who did a great deal for the country. It is now time for Europe to repay the support that it got from Venezuela in the past. I am talking about solidarity and economic support, which can be offered in many areas. I would like to encourage people to continue with it because it gives rise to a feeling of solidarity.

“Our ideal is that all people should appreciate the religions as a grace and not a threat”

 On 17 April this year Indonesia elected its new president.Ever since the country adopted democracy in 1998, it has been a clear example of the separation between religion and State. However, the political situation in Indonesia depends totally on the inclusion of Islam, and this is a key question in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Any change in policy could endanger the stability of a country that continues to suffer periodic attacks by Islamist fundamentalists.

The accommodation of Islam, the religion of 87 percent of the Indonesian people, within the (future) Indonesian state was in fact a key question from the very beginning of the national movement. Indonesia solved this question in an admirable way in 1945, one day after declaring independence, by introducing the concept of Pancasila, the ‘five principles’ on which Indonesia based herself[1]. Pancasila was the national consensus that Indonesia belonged to all Indonesians, thus that all Indonesians were equally in full measure citizens of Indonesia.

Maria Lozano, of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) interviewed Father Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit of German origin who now has Indonesian nationality, having lived in the country since 1961. In the interview, Father Magnis-Suseno, who has a profound knowledge of the religions in Indonesia, explains the situation in the country after the elections and expresses optimism about the spirit of national unity, defended by the democratic system in the country based on the doctrine of Pancasila.

 Since you’ve been living in that country for almost 60 years, would you please tell us how the country has evolved since your arrival ?
The most obvious development was, of course, the rise of Islam as the most important factor in Indonesian politics. The doctrine of Pancasila meant that Islam did not demand a special position in the Indonesian constitutional framework. In the first 20 years, under President Sukarno, nationalism was the decisive orientation of Indonesian politics. And for the first 20 years, under the New Order system of President Suharto (1966-1998), Islam was kept on a short leash. But at the same time Suharto promoted Islamic piety and practice (as an antidote against communism). Only during the 90s were people with strong Islamic identities given positions in Suharto’s system.

All this changed after the democratic opening following the fall of Suharto in 1998. While politicians with strong Islamic identities were leading Indonesia to become a Pancasila-based democracy – which it is to this day – Islamic extremism used the democratic opening to come out into the open. New, Islam-based political parties were founded (they were only moderately successful, together never getting more than 33 percent of the popular vote). In all political decisions, however, “Islam” had to be taken into account. The Islamic mainstream, represented by the two big civil society organizations, NadlatulUlama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, came under pressure from radical and extremist movements (like HizbutTahrir) which demanded a more shariah-based Indonesia. They were often accommodated through local regulations based on shariah. Muhammadiyah and NU clearly stated as their position that a Pancasila-based democracy was to remain Indonesia’s definitive political organization. But it was also clear that whatever happened in Indonesia had at the same time to be acceptable to Islam.

Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ from Jakarta, Indonesia, during a visit at ACN International Headquarter, 29th September 2014.

Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ from Jakarta, Indonesia, during a visit at ACN International Headquarter, 29th September 2014.

In this context, how do you interpret the results of the most recent elections?

The support of mainstream Islam for the moderate politics that have been the sign of Indonesia’s leadership for the last 20 years is the great stabilizing factor. It is clear that Indonesia’s future will be determined by Indonesian Islam, but the results of the last elections give hope that the moderate, Pancasila-based form of Islam will be decisive. This means that Indonesia’s democracy, based on human rights (as rooted in the amended constitution after 1998) and with a high degree of religious freedom, has an excellent chance of being consolidated in the future.

Does this mean that the re-election of President Jokowi is good news for the stability of the country?
Jokowi has received a mandate as President of Indonesia for the next five years. This means that Indonesians – not only those that voted for him – expect first of all a continuation of his careful, ideologically low profile, inclusive leadership. They expect that economic growth will continue. They hope that he will do still more to end poverty (now at an all-time low of 9% of the population) and provide the conditions that the 50% of Indonesians living just above the poverty line, in a very different world to the upper 40%, can improve so that their children may hope for a better future. They expect moderate pro-Islamic policies that make Muslims feel that he holds them close to his heart, against slanders that he is anti-Islam, communist, etc. His vice-president, Mar’uf Amin, a Muslim cleric, should guarantee this. They want him to continue his inclusive policies, giving minorities security and confidence, thus fulfilling the hope of the religious minorities that tolerance and freedom of religion will strengthen.

How are Catholics and Christians living in Indonesia?
Under Indonesia’s first President Sukarno (1945-1967) there was almost complete religious freedom, thus Christians faced no discrimination. On principle this did not change under Indonesia’s second President Suharto (1968-1998). In 1967 there were some attacks against Christian churches in South Sulawesi that were quickly suppressed, but this led to strict regulations making the building of churches much more difficult. Attacks against Christian churches in five cities in 1996 and 1997 foreshadowed growing internal tensions in Indonesia. The democratic opening after the fall of Suharto (1998) brought lingering intolerance into the open. It also marked the entrance of radical Islam into public awareness, with a terrorist bombing at the great Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta. At Christmas 2000 more than 30 bombs exploded within 60 minutes at churches across the country, from North Sumatra to Lombok, spanning 2000 km, which were never really investigated

Overall, Christians are still completely free, they live, communicate and worship without difficulties as small minorities on Java, Sumatra and other places, they still baptize people from other religions, including Muslims. But the building of churches is difficult and there have been some terrorist attacks on churches and other instances of intolerance.

How are relations with the other religions?
The remarkable fact is that relations between Catholics and mainstream Protestants and mainstream Muslims have never been as good as they are now. 60 years ago we Christians had practically no relations at all with “real” Muslims. But this began to change during the 70s. Now relations between Christian and Muslim intellectuals, between most Catholic bishops and their Muslim counterparts, between many parishes and parish priests and local Muslims leaders have become close and trusting. When facing difficulties we can directly speak with Muslims. After the terrorist attacks in Yogyakarta and Surabaya Muslim students immediately came to the churches and helped clean the floors of blood and debris. At the Christmas and Easter Masses many churches are protected by Banser, the militias of NadlatulUlama, the biggest Muslim civil society organization on earth. One of the reasons is that mainstream Islam itself feels under attack by extremist and radical ideologies and regards us as allies.

Indonesia, March 2014 - Holy Mass in Lopa village, Flores island. Priests making a sign of the cross on peoples' foreheads. Ash Wednesday.

Indonesia, March 2014 – Holy Mass in Lopa village, Flores island. Priests making a sign of the cross on peoples’ foreheads. Ash Wednesday.

Does that mean that there is also an interreligious dialogue?
The interreligious dialogue in Indonesia is quite intense. Both between intellectuals and religious leaders. This interreligious dialogue is not about our respective religious teachings, but about how we can overcome lingering intolerance, how religion, state and politics in Indonesia should relate to each other within our constitutional framework, how to face religious – mostly Islamic – extremism, about the misuse of the existing anti-blasphemy law, about the situation of religious communities not belonging to the six officially recognized religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism) – such as the Shiites, Achmadis, the local and indigenous religious communities; about our ideal that religions should be experienced as grace by all (rahmatanlilalamin) and not as a threat, that hatred and violence should have no place in religion.

People sometimes speak of “Islamic populism”. What does this phrase mean?
Islamic populism came first out in false circumstances in 2017 when a careless remark by Basuki Cahaya Purnama (Ahok), the Christian Governor of Jakarta who is of Chinese extraction, was falsified and made to appear as if he had insulted the Qur’an – which provided his enemies with the hoped-for opportunity to mobilize Islamic feelings against him. Ahok lost the subsequent local elections and was sentenced to two years in prison (he has now been released). But with Ahok in prison, the populist bubble lost steam. Maybe a so atypical figure as Ahok was culturally 100 years too early for Indonesia (remember, the US needed 160 years before the first Catholic could become President). By naming a soft Islamist as his vice-presidential candidate, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has succeeded in softening up Islamist populism. Several attempts to revive it did fail and in the last elections populism did not play a role. If Jokowi succeeds in accommodating pluralist mainstream Islam, he will hopefully succeed in isolating Islamic radicalism and solidify a pluralist, human rights-based democratic development.

Do you know what happened to Ahok? Is he still in prison?
Ahok was released from prison last January, three months before his two years’ sentence was over. His release went almost unnoted. His has joined the PDIP, the party of Jokowi, lead by Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputeri, but, listening to good advice from his friends, has completely kept out of public view (which was important for Jokowi before the elections). There is no sign yet, whether, or how he might re-enter politics after Jokowi’s victory becomes official (which is not the case until May 22). Ahok has still a strong, dedicated following, particularly among young Indonesians.

[1]Belief in One God; A just and civilized humanity;Indonesia’s Unity;People’s power, or: orientation to the people, (i.e. Democracy, led by the guidance of wisdom in common deliberation/representation); Social justice for the whole Indonesian people

The number of Christians in Aleppo fell dramatically during the war, from 180,000 before the war to 32,000 today. Joseph Tobji, Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo and shepherd of a small community of about 400 families, spoke with Pierre Macqueron of the pontifical foundation  Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

What is the situation in the city two years after the liberation of Aleppo by government forces?
In terms of safety, the situation has improved, even though bombs continue to fall. Several have been dropped on the fringes of Aleppo over the past few weeks. Therefore, the conflict has not actually ended yet.

However, what is raging now is more a war of economics. At the end of 2016, we thought that everyone would find work again and would be able to participate in rebuilding the city. We were surprised by the embargo and by the sanctions, which are hitting us even harder now. Every day, we are plagued by power failures [16 hours a day]. The economy is not working, inflation is soaring. In addition, corruption in the country has reached record highs. It is easy to imagine the situation of the inhabitants of Aleppo. Today, the people are demotivated.

Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo in bombed Maronite Cathedral, Old City, Aleppo, Syria.

Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo in bombed Maronite Cathedral, Old City, Aleppo, Syria.

What is the situation in Aleppo two years after the government forces recaptured the city?
We have lost a lot of resources and a lot of qualified workers. Emigration has become our bleeding wound. Even those who are still here are somewhere else in their hearts. The people dream of the paradise of the Western world. However, when they arrive there, they find a different reality to what they expected. They are very surprised and very disappointed. They are disappointed here and disappointed there: that is the great tragedy. We still had hope in 2016, now many are succumbing to despair.

What is the church doing to help people in need?
Young people want to go to other countries to find work. This is why I calculated that 40 per cent of our Christian community is made up of older people, but there are only two or three homes for the elderly in Aleppo. We try to support them both socially and through pastoral care by making sure that they have access to medicine, psycho-social support, food, education and housing.

Syria - arriving in Aleppo.

Syria – arriving in Aleppo.

We have to strengthen the faith of the people, anchor them in this country, encourage them to be witnesses of Christ, the salt of the earth and light of the world: we cannot allow our presence here to become insignificant. We have lived through a particularly painful period of history: we are living in extraordinary circumstances. Now we need to deal with them appropriately. To this end, we organised the first Synod of Catholic bishops in Aleppo last week.

What would you like to say to our benefactors?
In the name of all the Christians in Aleppo, I would like to thank them for their assistance, which carries us and strengthens our hope. Thank you with all of my heart.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.