From the outside looking in, the latest church conflict in West Papua might look like just another example of factional Protestant politics. A little sordid perhaps, but irrelevant to all but the parties involved.
Dig a little deeper, however, and one finds something far more disturbing.
A leaked letter from the head of the Indonesian Army in Papua obtained by New Matilda reveals that far from being an internal church matter, the conflict between Kingmi Indonesia, a Protestant church that has parishes across Indonesia, and the breakaway Kingmi Papua Church, goes to the heart of the Indonesian government’s attempt to repress movements for cultural pride and autonomy in the country’s restive Pacific periphery.
In a nutshell, the conflict turns on whether Kingmi Papua has the right to separate from Kingmi Indonesia and set up an autonomous synod, reverting to an arrangement that existed prior to 1982.
The question is this: why has the Indonesian Army become involved? Major-General Erfi Triassunu has waded into a conflict that he himself acknowledges is an internal church matter. In the letter (File Number: R/773/IV/2011) addressed to the Governor of Papua, Barnebus Suebu, dated 30 April 2011 and marked "secret", Triassunu "respectfully requests" the Governor to arrange a meeting between Kingmi Indonesia and Kingmi Papua. The General also offers himself as a mediator.
The letter continues: "if the conflict cannot be resolved through discussion then assertive action must be taken".
Let me translate "assertive action". In East Timor when the Indonesian Army took "assertive action" against the Church, they murdered church workers, massacred parishioners, raped women and burnt churches to the ground. In West Papua too the Indonesian Army has a history of killing pastors from the Kingmi Papua Church, as well as other churches. This dates back to 1 May 1963 when the Indonesian government took administrative control of the territory and has continued up to the present.
Last October a video filmed on soldiers’ mobiles phones and circulated widely on the internet, showed several soldiers from Kostrad, the Indonesian Army’s Strategic Command — Triassunu’s own division — torturing a Papuan church worker by burning his genitals with a stick.
In the letter, Triassunu, who previously served in Aceh, makes a number of accusations. He accuses Kingmi Papua of trying to access as much money as they can from the government’s Special Autonomy programme in order to create new churches. However, the real purpose of building a network of churches, Triassunu insists, is "to strengthen Papuan civil society aspirations for freedom". He then argues that the Kingmi Papua Church’s desire to be independent of the Indonesian Church is "just an excuse" for "the church to become a political vehicle" that supports Papuan independence.
Triassunu then goes on to make a number of recommendations. He specifically says that Kingmi Papua pastors should stick to Biblical "dogma" and not stray into politics. The General is on solid ground here, following in the footsteps of numerous dictators from Marcos to Pinochet, all notorious for their attempts to stifle meddlesome priests. Triassunu specifically names Reverends Benny Giay (the current moderator of the Kingmi Papua Church), Seblum Karubaba (the former moderator) and Noakh Nawipa (the Rector of the Pos 7 Theological College) as malcontents, mentioning several seminars organised by the trio where "Papua Merdeka" (freedom) was discussed.
All this has echoes of Suharto who systematically depoliticised (read: violently repressed and disbanded) all independent organisations, including religious ones, for fear they could become bases for organised opposition against the regime. Indonesian democrats may have overthrown Suharto but West Papua is not part of a new democratic Indonesia. What is deeply concerning is that in the Papuan context the label "separatist" is regularly applied to Papuan leaders as a pretext for justifying extra-judicial action by security forces.
This is where the plot thickens.
According to the letter, the General decided to become involved in the Kingmi conflict after a Kingmi Indonesia pastor, Reverend Karel Maniani, personally asked the Army to protect his parishioners. But Reverend Maniani himself was previously a member of "Group Nine" of the Papuan Freedom Movement (or OPM). In the 1980s Maniani was jailed for four years in the notorious Kalisosok Prison. What happened to Maniani on the journey from freedom fighter to Army petitioner?
To make things stranger, the conservative US-based evangelical Christian Missionary Association backs Maniani and Kingmi Indonesia against Kingmi Papua. At stake is not only valuable church property and access to Special Autonomy funds, it is also over influence of a broad Papua base. Kingmi Papua has half a million members. Virtually all of them are indigenous Papuans from the fractious Highlands, around a third of the entire Papuan population.
When I asked Benny Giay about all this his reply was revealing. For years he said he was part of a church that was more concerned with "saving souls" than the day-to-day oppression of the Papuans. "The Kingmi church has been complicit with the suffering of the Papuans. We need to confess our sins and follow the narrow path of Jesus. This Gospel is very clear; we must stand with the oppressed and work to alleviate their suffering. I hope we can cast off our fear and stay firm to this path."
Giay has a vision for an independent Papuan church; a uniquely Papuan church that makes space for Papuans to begin to articulate their own theology, one that sees God present in Papuan history and culture. Giay and his colleagues are slowly building up a church that commits itself to solidarity with the poor and oppressed; one that is led by the Papuans themselves. That may not sound much to a reader unfamiliar with Papuan politics, but in West Papua it is a big deal.
Just ask the General.
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