Can Moslems and Christians live in Peaceful Co-existence? Some Thoughts about the Future of Interfaith Relationships.

As the war in Iraq flared up again in 2004, I just returned from two international meetings in Europe dealing with Moslem-Christian relations in Indonesia, the largest Moslem nation on earth. Indonesia, once considered by western experts as one of the most tolerant Islamic country, has lately been subject to civil strife between Moslems and Christians. Churches were burnt down in Java and Sulawesi, many Christians were killed including three school girls found beheaded. In the Moluccas, an outright civil war between Moslems and Christians left thousands dead and many are still displaced refugees. Indonesia also witnessed some vicious bombings of the Australian Embassy and a Marriott hotel in Jakarta as well as tourist spots on the island paradise of Bali.

The war in Iraq drags on and so does talk in this country about Moslems hating Christians. A good friend of mine, a national guardsman, was stationed for a year near Fallujah, the place were fanatical Iraqis killed and mutilated four American civilian guards. Perhaps Divine Providence spared my friend from harm as he just returned from Iraq days before the recent uprising. He is already a grandfather and shouldn’t have been sent there in the first place. At his welcome home party he was still dazed but had no trouble whatsoever to express strong sentiments about his experience. He is convinced that there is an unbridgeable abyss between Moslems and Christians. The only way to save them is to force democracy and industrialization upon them. They then will become more like us and only then will Islam be playing a less prominent role in their lives. Only then they will become less dangerous to us.

Many Americans hold similar beliefs about Moslems as freedom-hating, anti-Christian terrorists. This increasingly bellicose, polarizing view is bothering me as someone who has studied Moslem-Christian relationships for the last thirty years and has been always treated in a cooperative and courteous manner. Even now, when Moslem-Christian interaction is perhaps universally the tensest ever in its long, often antagonistic history, I experienced Moslems participants as polite and tolerant as ever during two conferences dealing with this topic and attended by delegates of both faiths.

Thus, when between these conferences, I was commuting back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, I had lots of time during these long, tedious flights to mull over future of Moslem-Christian relations. From deep back of my memory, I dug up the Cold War term “ Peaceful Co-existence,” and wondered if this is still possible to return to such an arrangement between the adherents of Islam and Christianity in this emotionally laden period of ever more dangerous confrontation.

Here, I would like to share with the readers what happened at these two conferences, not just in the official sessions but away from it, in the hope that I can paint a much more human picture than those provided nightly on television news. My approach will be, deliberately, slightly “gossipy” to emphasize the very humanity of the people I met, -- Christians as well as Moslems. Back in December 2003, I was an invited speaker at a symposium on “Christianity in Indonesia” at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt (Germany). In February and March I chaired a meeting on “Reconciliation and Reconstruction” between Moslems and Christians in Eastern Indonesia held at the British Parliament in London (England) before moving on to lobby members of the European Parliament in Brussels (Belgium). This endeavor was funded by the British Foreign Office.

Camaraderie of Moslem and Christian Scholars in Germany

The German conference dealt with the delicate position of a relatively small Christian minority of Protestants and Catholics in the largest Moslem nation on earth. Political power struggles, ethnic strife, and abject poverty, all directly or indirectly related to globalization, have led to an increasing radicalization of the traditionally tolerant Moslem population. Most readers are familiar with the bomb explosions of Islamic fundamentalists on the paradisiacal island of Bali and in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, killing large numbers of people. While these acts of terrorism were directed at western tourists and business people, the indigenous minorities have also come under heavy attack in this far-flung island empire of 250 million people.

The international participants, joining their German colleagues, came from the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Norway, France, The Netherlands and Indonesia. Each of the attending scholars is recognized as the leading expert on one of the Christian regions in Indonesia, having made valuable theoretical contributions in his or her field of specialization within their disciplines that included anthropology, history, philology, religious studies, and political science.

The symposium was a great success in scientific terms made possible by the willingness of these participants to overcome both their cultural and discipline-based differences. However, what was more important was the striking harmony between the attending Christian and Moslem scholars. Both sides, openly and calmly, discussed touchy topics such as mutual missionary attempts leading to, sometimes forced, religious conversion and the political and economic power struggles and conflicts between Moslems and Christians. While political and military leaders on both sides have been becoming increasingly more intolerant, talking of “culture wars’ and directing real ones, scholars are still trying to build bridges between these two closely related religions. It led to a reaffirmation that these two religions have more in common than what divides them and it is the task of the academic community to counteract propaganda and myths in order to avoid an all out religious strife and to reign in terrorism.

Perhaps the most touching, and for some embarrassing, moment came when a Indonesian student, currently studying at a evangelical Protestant College in California, asked to speak at the end of the conference. The young, fearless woman thanked the assembled “sages” for all the wisdom they shared with her but then went on to ask them of what is the sense of gathering for a week to discuss religion and not once start a session with a common prayer? Scholars, even those studying religion, usually don’t carry their own beliefs on their sleeves and having a common prayer would break a sacred rule of scientific etiquette. I am sure, I was not the only one at the meeting who admired her gutsy admonishment but it was priceless to watch the consternation in many faces.

Revival of Brotherhood at England Meeting

The London meeting was potentially much more explosive since Moslems and Christians had been engaged in a bloody civil strife for the past four years in the Moluccas, a province in Eastern Indonesia, formerly known as the Spice Islands. Only recently, a very tentative, truce had been archived. I had been there during the climax of the strife in 2000 when I filmed I filmed a Moslem attack on a Christian university from inside the burning buildings while all kinds of nasty projectiles flew over my head. I had decided that the only way to understand the conflict was to be there and observe it firsthand. There were times when I didn’t believe that I would survive the night and times when I was afraid that the whole Christian community was to be wiped out. Then, I had little hope that the wounds afflicted on each other could ever heal again. Yet, there I was again being invited because of my extensive knowledge of the regional culture and customary law acquired over decades.

Both the Moslem and the Christian delegations had a mixed membership consisting of traditional village chiefs, religious leaders, and local political powerbrokers. All had come to the conclusion that in the last decades local cultural traditions had been neglected because of a vigorous attempt of the central government to force the uncounted ethnic groups to follow one, national, culture. The void left by the disappearing traditional culture was filled on both sides with increasing emphasis on religion stressing the differences between Moluccans rather than the similarities accentuated by the old traditions.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry about the relationships between Moluccan Moslems and Christians. Indeed they remembered there common ethnic values and every session was started with common prayers offered by a Christian and a Moslem. Away from the pressures of national politics in Indonesia both sides rediscovered their brotherhood. They fraternized outside the official sessions, telling poignant and slightly irreverent jokes about the idiosyncrasies of their own religions, dining and shopping together. No cliques, religious or otherwise were formed. Both sides freely mingled be it in shooting the breeze in the hotel lobby or in piling into the comfortable London taxis where Christians and Moslems congregated in ever changing constellations.

Shopping was more popular than sightseeing. Harrods, the department store owned by the family of Princess Diane’s lover, was much more popular than Diana’s home, Kensington Palace only minutes away from the hotel they were staying. It was the eccentric merchandize not any sentimentality about the tragic princess that attracted them regardless of religious affiliation.

For some, food was more cause for a potential crisis than religion. Some of the village chiefs didn’t trust English food and brought their own food eating it secretly in their hotel rooms. It consisted of papeda, a kind of transparent, grayish porridge made from the flour of the sago palm tree served with dried fish and a very hot sauce. Even for the less timid, potatoes were definitely out. Without rice no meal is complete and peoples’ condition will weaken. The cuisine most close to Indonesian was Chinese and it was Chinese food most lunches and dinners. Luckily, London’s Chinese restaurants are superb.

Often the European hosts strove to be as “politically correct” as possible. One evening, the delegation was invited for a formal dinner at the restaurant in the British Parliament building. As we arrived, our hostess, Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury, the deputy speaker of the House of Lords, took me worriedly aside, asking: “Dieter, would the Moslem delegates be terribly offended, if we served wine on the table?” As the “expert” on Moluccan customs, I assured Lady Caroline that this would be not in the least a problem. Most likely, nearly all Moslems would join us in a glass or two. This advice was based on my experiences prior to the arrival of the fundamentalists in 2000 leading to the conflict with the Christians. Then Moslems enjoyed a little palm wine at social occasions just as much as their Christian brethren. What if fundamentalist pressures changed this all? Wouldn’t I look a bit foolish? As it turned out, I was correct in my prediction and the evening was a success.

Just as all Christians are not the same, Moslem customs and beliefs very greatly from region to region. Moluccan Moslems deny that moderate alcohol consumption is anti-Islamic and do not in the least consider themselves less pious than those who brand the consumption of alcoholic beverages as an abomination. As a matter of fact, members of this Moslem delegation stood their ground against the radicals, openly supporting reconciliation with their Christian brothers. For their high moral principles, they suffered more than the Christians. Several were punished through radicals burning down their houses and yet, they continued to fight for ethnic unity and religious tolerance.

The closing of ranks displayed by the Moslem and Christian delegates, impressed members of parliament in both London and Brussels. Their common pleas for help were heard and the latest news is that the European Commission already has readied funds to help them in their efforts of reconciliation and reconstruction.

These two encounters between members of these supposedly mutually hostile religions demonstrate that its adherents can live in peaceful co-existence and, more importantly, are often quite willing to do so. Religious extremism is not exclusive to Islam and more often not religion is merely the rallying point not the cause. It can only be neutralized when people of good will talk to each other and work out their differences. No amount of weaponry and warfare can protect us against terrorism. The safest road to defeat it is by eliminating the causes that drive it through openly and honestly talking about it. Islam and Christianity are not the causes of terrorism; injustices and poverty are.



Following is a more formal English summary of the two conferences. You also can click on the respective buttons and view pictures of the meetings. Those reading Dutch can read two articles about the conferences originally published in the Dutch-Moluccan magazine Marinjo.

International Focus on the Moluccas after the End of the Unrest (Kerusuhan).

Within a month spanning the transition from the old to the New Year, two important international conferences were held that were of great importance for Moluccans both in The Netherlands and in Indonesia. On December 12-14, 2003, a very academic symposium titled “Christianity in Indonesia” was held in Frankfurt, Germany. From January 19 until January 28, 2004, a hands-on meeting on Reconciliation and Reconstruction in the Moluccas was held in London, spilling over into Brussels.


Leading Academics Analyze Christianity in Indonesia

The Symposium Christianity in Indonesia was the brainchild of Dr. Susanne Schröter, an ethnologist specializing in Eastern Indonesia and teaching at the Institute for Historical Ethnology, better known as the Frobenius Institute, at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main. The symposium was generously funded by Germany’s Volkswagen Foundation.

For Moluccan scholars and many Moluccan laypersons engaged in searching their roots, the Frobenius Institute will conjure up vivid, even sentimental thoughts about a young group of German social scientists who in the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of World War II, explored Seram as part of the so-called Frobenius Expedition to the Moluccas and New Guinea. Who can forget Adolf Jensen, Heinrich Niggemeyer, J. Röder, and Hahn as some of the most important contributors to our knowledge about the tribal peoples of Seram? Jensen described the culture of the Alune and Wemale in his classic “Die Drei Ströme.” Together with Niggemeyer, he published the extensive collection of West Seramese folktales and myths in “Hainuwele”. Hahn’s skilled drawings illustrated their writings and brought Seramese customs alive for the readers. Finally, Röder wrote about Middle Seram where he seemed especially fascinated by the local shamans. The Frobenius Institute is still very active and owns a comprehensive achieve, including Hahn’s drawings and many photographs, whose Moluccan collection still needs to be explored.

The subtitle of the symposium “Christianity in Indonesia” was “Perspectives of Power.”

Each of the invited participants were to present a thirty minute paper examining various ‘perspectives of power’ relating to the different Christian communities in Indonesia, covering, among others, topics such as independent theological developments, religious conversion, religious syncretism (the blending of different belief systems), and the political and economic power struggles and conflicts of Christian minorities in an overwhelmingly Moslem country. Each of the attending scholars is recognized as the leading expert on one of the Christian regions in Indonesia, having made valuable theoretical contributions in his or her field of specialization within their disciplines that included anthropology, history, philology, religious studies, and political science.

The international participants, joining their German colleagues, came from the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Norway, France, The Netherlands and Indonesia. Not surprisingly, the two latter nations furnished the largest contingent of scholars that included not only scholars interested in Christianity but also those normally focusing on Islam, achieving a neat counterbalance.

The conference was subdivided into three day-long panels, starting with Literary Reflections of Christian Thought, followed by Indigenization of Christianity and Minority Practices, and closing with Christian Minorities in a Moslem World and Community Building. It was within this last session that the Moluccas stood in the limelight. Dr. Dieter Bartels presented a paper titled “The Evolution of God in the Spice Islands,” discussing discussion complex interrelationships of Ambonese Protestants and Moslems from the arrival of Christianity until now including the “kerusuhan” period. Because of the dramatic events, his paper, and that of Lorraine Aragon on the developments in post-Malino Central Sulawesi (Poso), both led to many questions and quite lively discussions.

In general, the conference goals to encourage interdisciplinary discussion and to deepen a scholarly understanding not only of the special role of Christianity in Indonesia but also the overall understanding of this wide-flung, and often confusing, country where accomplished. It is planned to publish the Proceedings as soon as possible.


British Engagement in Restoration of Peace in the Moluccas

Prior to its happening, only few people in the Moluccan community in The Netherlands had advance knowledge about the recent conference in London on Maluku Reconciliation and Reconstruction. As a matter of fact, this meeting involving a delegation of peace-makers from the Moluccas was closed in order to assure that the Moslem and Christian delegates could work out a general plan to further reconciliation among them and reconstruction of both communities without any potential disruption by interest groups from The Netherlands that, it was feared by the organizers, may use this event to push certain ideologies and thus jeopardizing a positive outcome.

When people here found out about the meeting, they expressed surprise. Anything “Moluccan” on the international scene is usually considered the domain of the Dutch government. “How come the Brits get involved?” was an often asked question. This reporter does not know the answer. However, while Dutch governmental interest in the Moluccas seems to fluctuate depending on the urgency of the crisis reaching rapidly zero when things appear to cool down, the British parliament has a permanent committee on Indonesia that still seems to keep an eye on the Moluccas even though the situation has indeed quieted down. The topic is taken seriously enough that the British Foreign Office agreed to fully fund this conference. Aside from obvious economic considerations concerning the natural riches of Indonesia, a fairly influential lobby of Christian groups may also keep the interest alive.

The conference was organized by IICORR Ltd. This a bit awkward acronym stands for International Islamic Christian Organization for Reconciliation and Reconstruction. It is a new kid on the block among the ever growing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with international crises areas. IICORR’s stated purpose is “to promote harmonious relationships between Moslem and Christian communities throughout the world, especially in areas of incipient or established conflict.” Thus, its focus is global not parochially Moluccan-centered. Intriguingly enough, its honorary president is Indonesia’s ex-president Abdurrachman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur. Although new, the organization has political cloud having two members of parliament on its board and its chairman is the Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, the Baroness Cox of Queensbury, a very affably lady who is as determent as she is charming.

The IICORR organizers had the support of the tiny, motley Moluccan community in London, all of whom seemed to be married to English spouses and otherwise well-integrated into English society. However, they were well-informed about the homeland and as unabashedly proud to be Moluccans as anyone in the Dutch Diaspora. One of its members, Dr. Jeff Malaihollo, worked tireless to book tickets, hotel rooms, etc. while also acting as interpreter and translator in meetings with non-Moluccans despite having such a terrible cold that made him loose his voice at times. They were aided by the only “outsider, Dr. Dieter Bartels, was initially asked to moderate an adat workshop but, because of a shortage in personnel, slowly slipped into the role of a kind of general chairman of the meeting.

The representatives on both the Moslem and Christian sides all had a strong commitment to the restoration of the traditional good relations between their communities. Some Moslems, like Thamrin Ely (Member of Parliament) and Nasir Rahawarin (BIMM), had their houses burned down after proving this commitment when working out the Malino II agreement. Other Moslem members included Drs. Idrus Tatuhey (Head of Muhammadiyah), and three rajas, namely John Ohorella (Tulehu), A. Malawat (Mamala), and M. Tuanaya (Kailolo). Hasan Doa, the Bupati of Central Halmahera (North Maluku) acted as an observer.

The Protestant-Christian side was represented through the Moderator of the GPM, Broery Hendriks, the dominees Jacky Manuputty (Baku Bae) and John Ruhulessin (youth leader), as well as rajas Theresia Maitimu (Passo) and Chris Tamaela (Souhuku). Also present was the Mayor of Kota Ambon, Drs. Joopie Papilaja and the Catholic bishop of Maluku, Monsignor Petrus Mandagi.

The delegates split into three work groups , the first covering the restoration of adat and its uses in reconciliation; the second dealt reconstruction and governance, while the third tackled the issue of interfaith relations. All worked long hours to come up with a set of recommendations to be presented to the British and European Union parliaments, as well as being working papers in the process of reconciliation presented at home and used as basis for grant proposals to be sent to various European governmental institutions.

To someone who had observed first hand the bloody fighting during the kerusuhan, the harmonious cooperation, even camaraderie, was truly astounding. People were passionate but without ever letting their emotions get out of control as it is so often the case at Moluccan gatherings. Instead of bickering and showing off, there was a lot of good-natured bantering and unending joking. Strong was the impression that all truly wanted to succeed with reconciliation and reconstructions and if there were any personal agendas, they were not visible at the surface. They all seemed committed to make the best of the new autonomy law which gives local government some digression in decision-making. The goals they agreed upon are moderate and realistic and it is hoped that western governments and NGOs support their efforts both morally and financially. The returned with high hopes to improve the lives of Moluccans and they deserves all the help they can muster.