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Christians in the Muslim World

A bishop's life in Indonesia for a small Christian flock

At the end of 2007 I met H. E. Mgr Julianus Sunarka at his home in Purwokerto, a city in Central Java. He is one of Indonesia's 30 bishops, one of its most interesting prelates, a Jesuit who has led the diocese of Purwokerto for the past seven years. Since his appointment in 2000 he has worked tirelessly to better shepherd his flock, visiting them diligently, hearing their insights, using their feedback in his pastoral work around the diocese.



He is indeed very close to ordinary people in ways that few can really imagine, dressing so modestly that one can be forgiven if one does not realise that he is a Catholic clergyman. In his soft-spoken Javanese he addresses others in such a way that everyone will naturally be at ease in his presence and feel respected by such a distinguished man. And yet he is the most important figure in the Catholic Church for the whole western half of the province.



He told me about the letter from Pope John Paul II that informed him about his appointment seven years ago. He also spoke about one of his pastoral guides who told him: "You are not to tend Catholics alone, but instead should guide all the people in your region regardless of their religion or beliefs." Today these words still resonate with him, deeply.


In our talk he described the people and the area covered by his apostolate, some 70,000 Catholics living among 17 million Muslims, i.e. less than half of a percentage point of the total population. In light of this one of his pastoral priorities is to engage in dialogue other religious communities and work together with them, especially with Muslims. He has done so in a variety of ways, all in pursuit of his mission.



For instance one day a kyai or Muslim cleric asked him to find groundwater in a large dry area. Why? Because of his reputation as someone who had a supernatural ability that allowed him to find buried water by using a pendulum. When water flows or swells deep inside the soil the pendulum and his hand vibrate so that he can detect where it is located and how deep it is. This does not mean that he knows the quality of the water, but it does mean that overtime his reputation among people has spread far and wide. More importantly, he has used this unusual gift to reach out to Muslims.


But building genuine dialogue doesn't mean compromising or losing one's identity. Indeed this is where Bishop Sunarka draws the line. If there is an official event like Independence Day celebrations, he never fails to wear his cassock. And he encourages his priests to wear their vestment every time they go to a public meeting. "People might wonder," he said. "They might ask: 'Who is that man dressed in white? Ah! It's a Catholic priest. But I always thought Church leaders were all foreigners, Western and white.'"



Christian identity is surely not only about wearing a "clergyman's habit." For the bishop Christianity's core values on which one's identity is build are certainly more than a robe, but in the daily interaction with others, religious symbols do matter. Having non-Christians get used to and familiar with the Catholic Church is a critical undertaking and men and women religious need not hesitate about showing who they are. This is what Monsignor Sunarka plainly calls the "pre-catechesis" moment. Of course, he doesn't expect others to be baptized and become Christian, but he does believe that every Catholic has a duty to make others aware that the Church exists and that Christ's Good News was announced for them as well, regardless of their religious background.



As part of his efforts to reach out, Sunarka gave the nine-volume Encyclopaedia of the Catholic Church as a present to some Muslim scholars. By Indonesian standards this compendium of knowledge is quite expensive, around a hundred US dollars. But "they will use it and read it. Their understanding about our religion will be better, and an effective dialogue shall take place in a very adroit way."



Some people say that it is not easy to engage Muslims in dialogue. It is true that getting them involved in an exchange of ideas has never been an easy or simple task; however, it is not entirely impossible. Opening one's heart, being sincere and showing willingness to listen are like nutrients that enrich the soil in which the seeds of dialogue take root and grow.