We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Winona Vaitekunas has just finished her six weeks of service at an interfaith organization in order to build religious tolerance within Indonesia. Winona shares her experiences working in Yogyakarta alongside the staff at Dian Interfidei.
A few days ago I was at a going away party for a friend’s housemate when I introduced myself to an expat here in Yogyakarta. He immediately took interest as to why a young American student was working in Yogyakarta and inquired into my field of work. It was going well until I explained that Dian Interfidei is an interfaith non-governmental organization. His reaction was less than pleasant.
The other interns and I responded to his verbal attack, trying to explain that interfaith work is neither useless nor proselytizing. However, it made me realize just how little the international community knows about the significance of religion and it’s diversity in Indonesia.
Dian Interfidei has given me an opportunity to dive into this field in a way that would never be possible on my own. The religious culture here is hard to understand without being a local, but being able to work alongside an organization that actively engages the need for religious pluralism and promotes tolerance everyday has allowed me to gain a unique perspective where I can personally glimpse some of the culture despite my foreign status. By no means would I consider myself an expert, or even well versed, but I’ve been able to experience an interesting period of time in Yogyakarta that makes me a hundred percent certain that interfaith work is not only useful, but necessary.
Probably unbeknownst to everyone at home, in an eerily correlating time frame to my presence in Yogyakarta there has been a sharp rise in acts of religious intolerance. The first attack occurred on May 30th. I sum up the event with a quote from the AsiaNews.it article: “[It took place] when Catholics held their weekly meeting to pray the Rosary and practice their Sunday hymns. Local witnesses report that, suddenly, a group of Islamic fundamentalists raided the private house owned by a local Catholic leader, throwing stones and rocks. The assailants brutally beat him and then fled in haste.”
On June 1st, the anniversary of the Pancasila, another group attacked a Pentecostal church in Yogyakarta. (You can read more about it here.) The Pancasila are the five principles which are the official philosophical foundation of Indonesia and they include “just and civilized humanity” and “social justice for all people of Indonesia”. Apparently, the groups thought that stoning a church was the appropriate way to celebrate the anniversary of those principles.
Finally, this past Sunday cleric Ja’far Umar Thalib gave a message at a local mosque where “he repeatedly called on Muslims to wage jihad against so-called infidels and [religious] pluralism. He said pluralism had the potential to cause conflict as it taught that all religions were equally right and that was not the case” (source).
However, on a bright note, yesterday Dian Interfidei hosted Benedict Rogers, the East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who presented his report “Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril, The Rise of Religious Intolerance across the Archipelago”. His presentation could not have come at a better time and he even commented on Ja’far Umar Thalib’s preaching, reminding the crowd that pluralism does not teach that all religions are equally right. Pluralism is realizing that everyone deserves the freedom to believe that their religion is right, but also the freedom to express the fears they have of other religions, but in a context where other religions can do the same and promote understanding of each other and peace. In other words, we all just need a little more interfaith dialogue.
Welcome to Dian Interfidei’s purpose. And to the purpose that I am so blessed to be able to experience and take part in during my brief but significant window into Indonesian life.