Sumatra: announcing the Gospel whilst battling fatigue and extremist threats
The Indonesian archipelago runs from Aceh, the westernmost tip of Sumatra Island, to Papua in the East. Since 1945, when independence was proclaimed, the country has been crippled by unbalanced development, especially in terms of infrastructures (roads, telecommunications and transportation).
Under the rule of Dictator Suharto (1967-1998), the country experienced a certain degree of economic development as well as inter-confessional harmony, with greater religious freedom and minority protection.
Suharto’s death and the fall of his regime began a process of democratisation but also allowed Muslim extremists to exert greater power and start the systematic persecution of non-Muslims.
Fr Dani operates in Indrapura, among the many parishes that dot the southern coastline of West Sumatra Province, under the ecclesiastic jurisdiction of Padang Diocese.
Local Muslims and authorities have been opposed to Christian functions, including the Eucharist, for quite some time. Because of misunderstandings and dissatisfaction on the part of the Muslim community, open attacks against Christian targets have occurred.
“A while back, hundreds of angry Muslims set fire to a hall Catholics used as a non-permanent church,” the clergyman said. Shouting “Allah Akbar”, the thugs threw kerosene and torched the wooden structure, which burnt and collapsed. Nothing was left.”
Since then, Catholics have been haunted by fear. They can no longer celebrate their faith in public. “We have been discreet in our practices, holding services in private homes. However in 2006, a local village chief banned even that.”
Indrapura has become a meeting place for Christian families, who walk for hours in the forest to take part in liturgical celebrations. At the start, 12 families came to Mass, now the “number is over 50”, the priest said.
Despite the opposition of local Muslims and village chief, Fr Dani does not plan to stop performing religious services or offering religious education, which is compulsory in school, but which is not locally provided.
“When I celebrate a function, I read at a low voice. We cannot even sing,” he said, fearing that it might draw the attention of Muslims.
At Christmas and Easter, the faithful must travel for hours to reach the provincial capital of Padang if they want to take part in the Mass.
“Despite all the hardships we have had to face, we have not lost patience or the desire to pray the Lord,” the priest said.
There is no greater joy, for him, to celebrate the Eucharist with the Christian communities in the remote regions of West Sumatra.
Catholics and other Christians in the area are mostly immigrants, ethnic Bataks or Javanese. Locals are mostly Muslim.