“The flowers of mutual acceptance, coexistence and forgiveness”

Harmonious coexistence in the Spice Islands

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

The news that reaches us from the once famous Spice Islands is good. The time of civil conflicts, of confrontation between Christian and Muslim communities seems to be just a distant memory. At least this is what Monsignor Seno Ngutra, bishop of Amboíno, capital of the Moluccas Province, in eastern Indonesia, understands. “We have crossed the desert of inter-religious conflict,” he tells the reporter from the Fides news agency, “but now, in that desert, the flowers of mutual acceptance, coexistence and forgiveness have emerged”.

Relations between people from different religious communities remain good, “both at the level of leaders and among common people”.

Interreligious conflicts, however, are nothing new in that region. They have been a constant since the times when the Portuguese – since 1512 – traded, resided and proselytized there, but also carried out intrigues and waged war, always in search of beneficial alliances with the local sultans. Interestingly, over time the island of Amboíno would often be cited as an example of good inter-religious coexistence; an environment of peace and tranquility guaranteed by an ancestral system of mutual help called pela, which led to villages on different islands twinning with each other, and Christians helping to build mosques and Muslims to build churches. In theory this was the case, although in practice the tension between the different communities – Christian Amboins, on the one hand; Muslim Amboins and groups of Muslim migrants from the neighboring Celebes archipelago, on the other – has never ceased to be a worrying reality.

Any misinterpreted attitude, any discussion, any misunderstanding could result in widespread violence. And, in fact, this happened in 1999 with the triggering of a climate of civil war that would last until 2002, causing around 15,000 deaths and more than 500,000 people displaced. The diocese of Amboíno then faced a serious crisis. Around 80 churches, several schools, private homes, hospitals and Catholic institutions were seriously damaged during this conflict, which officially ended with the signing of the ‘Declaration of Malino’ in February 2002.

In June of the following year, a reconciliation ceremony attended by several local religious leaders and thousands of faithful took place in Amboíno, strongly desired and encouraged by the then Catholic bishop of Amboíno, Petrus Canisius Mandagi. It was then concluded that the conflict was generated by a mixture of provocations on the part of military loyalists to the then deposed dictator Suharto and old autonomist demands that dated back to the ephemeral Republic of the South Moluccas; promptly annihilated by an Indonesian state still in its infancy.

Monsignor Seno Ngutra, appointed in 2021, was able to witness the new (and present) paradigm after a pastoral visit to the different islands (there are around 50 in his diocese, with 56 parishes), some with a Muslim majority, others with a Christian majority. He found that there is now harmony between Christians and Muslims – and also between Hindus and Buddhists.

“We learned the lesson of the past,” says Monsignor Seno Ngutra, deeply committed to organizing inter-religious meetings that provide the “germination of the good seed of coexistence”. “The secret – specifies the prelate – is in daily coexistence and in sowing friendships; not in building walls or ghettos in villages.” We will recognize the other as a human being, deserving of mercy, from the moment we see him as a brother or person to be loved. “On this basis, peace in the Moluccas was solidified; On this basis we achieved mutual forgiveness, the dynamic that put an end to the war. Something ‘new’ always emerges from forgiveness, which in our case brought the joy of fraternity,” concludes the Bishop of Amboíno.

“On this path of coexistence, the teachings of Pope Francis have proven to be very useful, which we try to apply in our context, encouraging dialogue and not proselytism,” he further noted.

For example, the local Catholic Church has a church and three primary schools on an island with an overwhelming Muslim majority: only 4% of the population is Catholic. 99% of students at the three schools are Muslim. There is also a Catholic school on another island with an animist population. “It was a gift for these people, and some families asked to baptize their children, in total freedom,” notes Monsignor Seno Ngutra, specifying that the diocesan community manages more than a hundred schools. The mission, explains the bishop, “often involves a commitment to education, which means closeness to people: it is a form of charity”. On numerous islands there are also “missionary stations”, small chapels where priests regularly visit. “From there, interest in faith and conversions can arise,” observes the prelate, praising the work of volunteer catechists, men and women, who help priests and deacons, especially on the most distant islands.

Catholicism introduced there by the Portuguese Padroado do Oriente – with Saint Francis Xavier being the absolute reference figure – and which in 1558 already had around 10,000 souls in Amboíno and neighboring islands, would be strongly shaken with the arrival of the Dutch at the beginning of the 17th century. Only in the 20th century would the Apostolic Vicariate of Amboíno be founded, a city elevated to the category of diocese in the 1960s and which today has around 115 thousand Catholics in a population of 3.2 million.