Dewi, a young Muslim woman, on her meeting with Pope Francis
by Paolo Fossati

A photo taken in St Peter's Square has made her an icon of interfaith dialogue in Indonesia. The young woman is an activist with Gus Durian, a youth movement affiliated with the world's largest moderate Islamic organisation. "It is essential to create opportunities to meet people in other religious contexts."


Semarang (AsiaNews) – The sight of a smiling Pope Francis shaking hands with an emotional young Muslim woman (picture 1) has gone viral in Indonesia, becoming an iconic image in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

The woman in the picture is Dewi Kartika Maharani Praswida, a 23-year-old student from Wonogiri regency, Central Java province.

"I never expected that my pictures with Pope Francis would cause such hype in Indonesia,” she told AsiaNews,  “but I am happy, because these images reminded many of my compatriots that belonging to different religious communities does not prevent us from being brothers and sisters, children of the same almighty God."

The photo that made Dewi famous at home was taken on 26 June, during the Pope's general audience in St Peter's Square.

"Pope Francis was busy with greetings when he approached the barrier. I was able to exchange a few words with him: 'I am Muslim and I come from Indonesia. Please, Holy Father, pray for me, for peace in my country and in the whole world. The Pope replied: ‘Of course, I will.’”

"Being able to meet the leader of the Catholic Church, the ‘good man’, the ‘man in white’, was for me a true blessing. Being able to say 'I am in the prayers of Pope Francis' was an indescribable joy."

Dewi has a BA and is now pursuing a Master's Degree in Environmental and Urban Sciences at the Universitas Katolik Soegijapranata (Unika), a Catholic university in Semarang, the capital of Central Java.

She is involved in interfaith dialogue with Gus Durian, a youth movement affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a moderate Islamic group. With more than 90 million members, NU is the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia and the world.

Between February and June of this year, the young woman was in Rome to study thanks to the Nostra Aetate Foundation[*], which grants scholarships to young people from other religions who wish to deepen their knowledge of Christianity at Pontifical academic institutions.

Dewi studied at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) and the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI).

"In my city, Semarang, I am involved in activities concerning interreligious dialogue,” Dewi explained. “I have also dedicated my studies to Rome to this topic. But since I was in the heart of world Christianity, I said to myself: 'Why not to take the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of Christianity and the Catholic Church?’

"There are a lot of misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians and I do not want to be part of them. I would like to make my contribution, so that the two sides can interact with each other. For this reason, I began with the Declaration on the Church's relations with the non-Christian religions 'Nostra Aetate', one of the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, in order to better study what constitutes the religious practice of Catholics.”

The young woman first came into contact with the universal Church some months before her arrival in Rome in February. Invited by the Commission for young people (KomKep) of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Indonesia (KWI), Dewi was one of the participants in the pre-synodal meeting held in the Vatican between 19 and 24 March 2018.

The event, organised ahead of the Synod of young people (3-28 October 2018), was attended by about 300 young men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic, from different parts of the world. In addition to Dewi, the Indonesian delegation included two other people, both Catholics.

Three young Muslims took part in the pre-Synodal meeting. "The other two participants, a man and a woman, came from the Middle East.” But “I was the only one wearing the hijab. I admire Pope Francis a lot, because he tried to listen to the ideas and hopes of the young people present, Catholic and non. There were even atheists among us. This was the occasion for my first meeting with the pontiff (picture 4), with whom I shook hands. I felt blessed.”

The Document on Human fraternity for world peace and living together, signed last 4 February in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, represents a historic turning point in relations between the Catholic Church and Islam.

For the young woman, "The document has had a great impact. Among my friends there are those who have not read the text, but the photos of the signing ceremony alone and the affectionate greetings between the pontiff and the imam have generated a very positive response. For many they were proof that these two great religions can engage in dialogue."

"During my stay in Rome, I was able to interact and make friends with people who have different opinions from mine. There were lively debates. I remember one in particular with an Orthodox Christian. But mutual esteem and affection always characterised our discussions. If there were any criticisms or prejudices, they came from Indonesia, where some claimed I had been 'evangelised', that I had found comfort in another religion, but I never gave any importance to such talk.”

"I always try to understand the reasons behind the prejudice of people. Some have preconceptions because they have never been outside their community or circle of friends. It is therefore essential to create opportunities to meet people in other religious contexts, so that the knowledge of what it is different, blows away wrong beliefs. Prejudice comes from misunderstanding: asking, listening and learning break this vicious circle."


[*] The Foundation is part of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCDI) in Rome.

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