Can a Papal Visit Bring Peace to Restless Papua?


Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke recently requested a papal visit to Indonesia’s easternmost region, Papua. He believes a papal visit can help resolve Papua’s long history of violent conflict since the early 1960s, when the region, arguably unintentionally, became part of Indonesia through the Accord. from New York. Hosted by the United States, the agreement was signed on August 15, 1962 by the Netherlands and Indonesia concerning the administration of the territory.

Papua’s political member status in the unitary state of Indonesia was reconfirmed in 1969 when a sort of referendum known as the Free Choice Act was held, and apparently most voters were freely chosen to stay in Indonesia. Both of these historic events – the New York Accord in 1962 and the Free Choice Act in 1969 – remain politically problematic and may have caused a sense of unrest, especially among historically conscious Papuans.

Significant efforts to promote peace in the region may need to revisit the history of Papua’s integration into Indonesia. Understanding its history is essential for identifying the roots of the conflict in the easternmost region of Indonesia, whether the Papuan unrest is historically rooted in the early years of its integration with Indonesia, or whether it has a root cause entirely. different. For this to happen, however, it takes courage, commitment and humility on the part of all parts and elements of society. Failure to apply a historical, as well as a cultural-religious approach, in peace negotiations means that the path to peace may remain an unrealized dream for years to come.

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It is no exaggeration to suggest that Archbishop Mandagi’s request for a papal visit to Papua reflects the local Catholic Church’s sense of helplessness in promoting peace and justice in the region. On a positive note, the Archbishop’s decision is an important proposal that must be taken seriously by both the Vatican and Jakarta. The presence of a prominent religious figure – Pope Francis – in the country, and in Papua in particular, would give positive energy to peacebuilding efforts.

Some have been skeptical, however. Can a papal visit really bring peace to the lingering problem of unrest in Papua as the local and national church have failed for years? This question reflects that skepticism, and it is understandable.

It is true that the Indonesian Church has failed to intervene effectively in previous decades, so it seems unrealistic to expect a papal visit to help the cause. Christians in Papua have also been accused of being part of Papua’s endless violent conflict with the Indonesian military, or TNI.

Sudden positive change is unrealistic to expect given the long history of violence in the region since the early 1960s

Partly for this reason, Archbishop Mandagi’s request can be seen not only as unrealistic, but also a reflection of a failure to understand and accept responsibility for some of the problems in Papua. Implicitly on demand, there seems to be a perception that there is something magical about a papal visit. Papua is even expected to instantly transform from being reluctant to peaceful.

It is unrealistic to expect sudden positive change given the long history of violence in the region since the early 1960s. However, a papal visit would help the process of change, starting with individual mindsets and attitudes. Peace negotiations cannot take place, and peace can only be achieved if all the warring parties are prepared to end the fighting.

Archbishop Mandagi made the request through the National Bishops’ Conference, known in Indonesian by the acronym KWI. Reading between the lines, there seems to be a suggestion that the KWI should pay more attention to the turbulent region. Yet no specific details have been explained as to what kind of attention Papuans actually need in their search for peace, other than inviting Pope Francis to visit the region. Even if the desired actions were specified, for example, to pressure Jakarta to overhaul its strong military presence in Papua, there is no certainty that the bishops’ conference would be prepared to carry them out.

Historically, when it comes to domestic policy issues, the bishops’ conference has been inclined to choose to remain silent, as in the case of the massacres of suspected communists during the anti-communist violence of 1965-66. Silence appears to be the Church’s political comfort zone on the institutional level. The Church as an institution would therefore be very careful in openly expressing its negative feelings, if any, regarding Jakarta’s failure to protect the rights of Papuans to live in peace and harmony with one another.

Even though over the years some priests have expressed their demands for the restoration of peace in Papua, their demands would not automatically be viewed by the KWI as reflecting the official position of the Indonesian Church. Indeed, the call for the bishops’ conference to be more involved and proactive in promoting peace is imperative. KWI’s institutional intervention is important and urgent to end the conflict. Leaving Papua’s priests and bishops to fight for peace could make them easy targets for violence and terror.

Archbishop Mandagi was installed as Archbishop of Merauke on January 3 after being appointed last November. Before coming to Merauke he had been Bishop of Amboina since 1994, and in 2019 he was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Merauke. He was born in Kamangta, North Sulawesi in 1949, and was ordained a priest in 1975. His motto is “Nil Nisi Christum” (Christ Alone, Galatians 2:20).

Interesting way. Soon after his installation, Archbishop Mandagi signed a memorandum of understanding on January 5 with a palm oil company, PT Tunas Sawa Erma, which is part of the Korindo group. This signing of the MoU, while not a solid legal document, has not been welcomed by some Papuan Catholic activists. It disappointed and angry them. They felt that the Archbishop’s action was irresponsible without prior public consultation.

The path to peace in Papua is a challenge, and this challenge must be taken up individually and collectively for a positive result.

The Archbishop was later accused of being negligent towards the environment and culturally insensitive and disrespectful. In protest, since the end of January, Papuan Catholic activists have been raising funds from those who attend Sunday masses to hand them over to Archbishop Mandagi, demanding that he cancel his memorandum of understanding with the oil company palm for a plantation in the Archdiocese of Merauke.

The controversy is only mentioned here as a reminder of the archbishop’s economic and ecological positions. It is not necessarily presented to weaken its demand for more KWI involvement and the visit of Pope Francis. However, the controversy can be seen to reflect the lack of commitment and consistency within the church hierarchy in Indonesia on peacebuilding in Papua. The excessive emphasis on the importance of economic interests appears to have compromised the Church’s advocacy for justice and peace as fundamental aspects of human rights.

The path to peace in Papua is a challenge, and this challenge must be taken up individually and collectively for a positive result. May the long-awaited peace be achieved in Papua, a land rich in natural resources but which remains one of the poorest regions of the country.

The opinions 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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