On the Interdenominational Construction Site of Humanity

For the past 20 years, the Indonesian NGO DIAN/Interfidei has been engaged in interdenominational dialogue. The organization has also tried to include atheists, Confucians, and even fundamentalists in its activities – with various degrees of success. Anett Keller reports from Yogyakarta

By Anett Keller

"Everything began with anger," recalls Daniel Dhakidae, one of the founders of DIAN/Interfidei. "The anger was particularly directed at religious institutions. How could you explain violence in the name of religion? How could you explain the unwillingness of religious leaders to compromise?"

Dhakidae was not the only one with such questions. In October 1991, the Catholic journalist Daniel Dhakidae, together with his Muslim colleague Zulkifly Lubis, the Protestant theologians Eka Darmaputra and Thomas Sumartana, and the Muslim religious scholar Djohan Effendi founded DIAN/Interfidei, the first Indonesian NGO that made pluralism the focus of its programme.

Narrowly conceived order for tolerance

At the time, Indonesia was firmly in the grip of Suharto's military regime. The constitution recognized only five religions – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The official position was one of "tolerance between religions," but it was forbidden for the media to report on any conflicts between the adherents of different faiths.

photo: Anett Keller
"Building a common house in which there is room for everyone": the 20th anniversary celebrations of DIAN/Interfidei in Yogyakarta

​​"DIAN/Interfidei deserves the credit for recognizing early on that enormous tensions had been seething under the surface," says Stanley Adi Prasetyo, member of Komnas HAM, the Indonesian human rights commission.

The philosophy of DIAN/Interfidei is that people of different faiths should exchange their real experiences rather than focussing on their respective religious dogmas. All interested individuals should be included, regardless of their faith or world views. The goal is to create an interdenominational community.

"The concept of 'tolerance between religions' was one imposed from above and that solely catered to institutions and their leaders," explains Daniel Dhakidae. "An interdenominational community, in contrast, develops from the grass roots, from community initiatives, and is not driven by special interests."

Elga Joan Sarapung, the executive director of the DIAN/Interfidei Institute, long ago gave up her work within the confines of an organization. In 1993, she resigned from her position as deputy chair of the Gorontalo Synod in north-eastern Sulawesi in order to devote her energies to NGO work in Yogyakarta. "I am not the type to be a pastor. All the rituals aren't for me." The 50-year-old with closely cropped grey hair lets loose a hearty laugh. "Too much routine makes me very impatient."

Yogyakarta lies at the heart of the island of Java. It is a cultural melting pot and home to the country's leading universities. According to Elga, the city is the ideal location for her NGO. "Yogyakarta is cosmopolitan and pluralistic. It is ideally suited for us to reach the young generation."

Atheism as a political foe

Interfidei intentionally includes Atheists in its dialogue as well, although hardly anyone in Indonesia will admit to not believing in God. This can be traced back to the fierce indoctrination pursued under the military dictatorship of Suharto, who seized power after an attempted putsch and strived to wipe out the Communist Party on account of its supposed involvement in the coup d'état. From then on, the official doctrine was "Atheism = Communism = chaos."

A DIAN/Interfidei conference at Yogjakarta (photo: Anett Keller)
Creating an interdenominational community: The philosophy of DIAN/Interfidei is that people of different faiths should exchange their real experiences rather than focussing on their respective religious dogmas

​​Elga is not concerned with an individual's formal denomination, but rather with their concrete behaviour. "When someone does something good, then that person is following an inspiration. Who of us can truly claim to know where this inspiration comes from?"

Over the past two decades, Interfidei has time and again confronted taboos. Elga recalls being interrogated by police for hours on end. In 1994, the organization held a number of seminars on Confucianism, which at the time was not a religion recognized by the state. "The police who interrogated us admitted to knowing absolutely nothing about Confucianism," remembers Elga. "They said that they were just following orders."

Dialogue with radicals

Back then, the threat to the organization came from the state. Now, the proponents of pluralism face a diversity of opponents and dangers, including terrorist attacks, bloody unrest between Christians and Muslims, and deadly attacks on minority groups such as that against the Ahmadiyyah by Islamist mobs. With increasing frequency, violent events are casting a disturbing shadow over the multi-religious and multi-ethnic archipelago and its young democracy.

"The state does not protect its citizens," complains Elga. "It does not employ force against violence prone fundamentalists." This makes it all the more important to conduct civil society dialogue in all directions – even including radical circles.

These efforts have borne fruit. Aswar Hassan has travelled to Yogyakarta for the 20th anniversary celebrations of DIAN/Interfidei. In 2000, this powerful man from South Sulawesi co-founded the "Preparatory Committee for the Implementation of Sharia Law" (KPPSI) and served seven years as its Secretary General. The Committee also includes representatives of violent groups, some of whom have been imprisoned for their participation in terrorist activities.

In 2001, Hassan took part in a DIAN/Interfidei seminar. "It opened up a door to dialogue for me at a time when others simply pegged me as a fundamentalist, only because I moved in fundamentalist circles."

Today, Hassan explains to incensed fanatics who protest against the construction of churches by small religious communities that there are many different denominations within Christianity and that they all require their own place of worship. And, moreover, the construction of a place of worship is a human right.

Feigned interest

DIAN/Interfidei devotes a great deal of effort in cooperation with religion teachers. Many observers hold religious education in schools responsible for growing intolerance because of its exclusivist nature. The organization attempts to reform the religious education through empirical studies and the training of religion teachers, Since 2004, DIAN/Interfidei has supported a country-wide network of religion teachers towards this aim.

"DIAN/Interfidei is a unique organization with respect to its consistent, deep, and serious efforts in promoting pluralism," says Anis Fakhrihatin, head of the teacher network. "During anti-terrorism campaigns, numerous domestic and foreign NGO turned to religion teachers," remarks Anis. "All at once, they wanted to talk to us about human rights, gender issues, and social justice. But after the workshops, we never heard from them again," criticizes Anis.

DIAN/Interfidei is like a construction site where we all join efforts – with our different tools and techniques – to build a common house in which there is room for everyone," says Jacky Manuputty. The pastor from Ambon, site of bloody unrest between Christians and Muslims, had his own house burned down by Christians, because he promoted reconciliation with Muslims.

Jacky reminds his colleagues on this interdenominational construction site of humanity not to distance themselves from the grass roots. Here, economic problems count first and foremost. Then he reiterates that Indonesia has a great deal of experience in pluralistic co-existence and solving social problems. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Jacky. "The common folk have the most experience in solving problems. We can learn the most from normal life and daily communication between neighbours."

Anett Keller

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de