Solo, Indonesia – Known for violence against religious targets like the 2011 church bombing and acts of violence in the late 1990s against ethnic Chinese residents, Solo, an Indonesian city in central Java, is back in the limelight. But this time it is thanks to its beloved former mayor, Joko Widodo. Now the governor of Jakarta, Widodo was named the world’s third best mayor by the World Mayor Project in early 2013, and praised for his success in “turning a crime-ridden city into a regional centre for arts and culture.”
He is not the only one who is contributing to shifting Solo’s reputation from a city of conflict to one of peace. Another notable resident is Rev. Paulus Hartono, a local Mennonite Christian church leader. Envisioning Solo as a city of peace, as opposed to its popular nickname – the “short-fused” city – Hartono is currently working with other religious leaders to establish the Solo Peace Institute.
For more than a decade Hartono has worked with different Christian and Muslim groups on humanitarian efforts. He has broken down barriers to effective interfaith communication and developed a peacebuilding model that transforms conflicts into positive interactions.
In 2003, Hartono initiated close relationships with other religious leaders and co-founded the Forum for Peace Across Religions and Groups (FPLAG). This forum was significant because, in the years after the Indonesian Reform in 1998, religious and ethnic conflicts were commonplace. A local Muslim paramilitary group, Hizbullah (no connection to Lebanon’s Hizbullah), even made attempts to shut down churches and evict expatriates.
Hartono made every effort to change people’s perspectives by highlighting the commonalities among different faiths, such as the fundamental values of peace, mercy and love that Christianity and Islam share. For him, this effort was an exercise in compassion as taught in Christianity.
As the head of Solo’s Immanuel Radio station in early 2005, Hartono frequently met Hizbullah commander Yani Rusmanto, who served as the head of Hiz Radio then. During their meetings, he expressed his wish to visit Hizbullah’s headquarters, but Rusmanto never responded.
Hartono’s endeavour to establish an interfaith network and opportunities for reconciliation with Hizbullah gained momentum after the Aceh Tsunami in late 2004. The Mennonite Church, a Christian Anabaptist denomination, runs faith-based projects focusing on humanitarian and non-violent action through its local peacebuilding and service arm of the Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (GKMI) Mennonite church, the Mennonite Diakonia Service. At that time, Hartono was in charge of disaster management and invited Rusmanto to get involved in humanitarian efforts in Aceh. This time the commander responded positively and joined the mission.
After two weeks of intensive communication in Aceh, the two leaders started their harmonious relationship.
At one point in Aceh, Hartono asked Rusmanto to deliver a speech. After saying a few words, the commander became speechless and started to cry. He was struck by the sincere commitment of Christians to help the largely Muslim Tsunami victims. His previous prejudice against Christians was seriously challenged by what he saw.
This partnership was reignited when a devastating earthquake hit Yogyakarta in 2006. Cars transporting aid for the victims from the church were guarded by Hizbullah members to ensure their safe delivery.
Hartono and Rusmanto subsequently created a partnership between their radio channels, Immanuel and Hiz radio, in 2009. They ran a joint program called “The Voice of Peace” for five months, joined by Muhammad Dian Nafi’ from Indonesia’s largest mainstream Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), as a speaker. This radio show aimed to enlighten listeners on the meaning of pluralism, peace, diversity and radicalism, and was well received by residents of Solo.
Paulus Hartono successfully broke the communication deadlock between radical Muslims and Christians in Solo. He proved that with shared compassion and humanity, a peaceful relationship based on mutual understanding is possible between two different groups.
Many people have come to Solo, now governed by a Catholic mayor, to learn about these interfaith efforts which are beginning to change perceptions of the city from one of violence to one of peace.
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