High expectations for Indonesian religious leaders

by Elga J. Sarapung
Yogyakarta, Indonesia - Indonesians place high expectations on religious leaders to respond with real positive action when it comes to current interfaith issues and the relationship between religious communities and the state.

The term “religious leaders” in the Indonesian context refers not only to formal religious authorities, but also to any person that a religious community or religious institution regards as having leadership qualities. And it is in fact these leadership qualities, rather than formal religious titles – such as pendetas (reverend), kyais (imam), pastor, romos (father) and bikkus (monk) – that should define real “religious leaders”.

Religious leaders must be role models not only for their own community but for all people, and express moral values in what they think, say and do. They must be role models not only in their religious functions, but in any social activity. Religious leaders are leaders for the whole society.

One important aspect of being such a role model in Indonesia is to be open-minded about Indonesian society’s religious pluralism. This pluralism is an essential aspect of Indonesia as a nation and one of the pillars of Indonesian democracy.

When religious pluralism is not recognised or well managed, Indonesian democracy malfunctions and conflicts result.

In the past 15 years in particular, there have been tensions between religious communities in Indonesia. Some of these tensions have resulted in deadly conflicts – as in Ambon, capital of the Maluku province, and Poso, a regency in Central Sulawesi – in which Christian and Muslim homes were burned after sectarian violence erupted. Such conflicts not only harmed relationships and hampered development in the area, but also threatened human lives. Prejudice, stereotypes and stigmas continue to spread not only among ordinary people, but also among religious leaders and political elites.

This situation can be attributed to both internal and external factors. One internal factor is the narrow mindset of religious communities and their leaders, as well as their limited experience interacting with people of different faiths.

External factors are linked to political or economic interests. The involvement of religious leaders in politics very often paves the way for the abuse of religion for certain political purposes. Indonesian religious leaders can be tempted by politically motivated financial aid or political titles to use their religious institutions (and even religious symbols and teachings) as a means of achieving or legitimising certain political agendas.

For example, a number of pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) received financial assistance from politicians in exchange for political support or endorsement. Similarly, leaders of certain Christian churches have used the pulpit to support particular political candidates, also in exchange for funds. Such cases have resulted in mistrust of certain religious leaders and their motives.

This disappointing reality has a huge impact not only on the life of certain religious communities, but also on the trust needed for building bridges among people of different faiths.

The mistrust generated by the misuse of religious authority has overshadowed initiatives spearheaded by religious leaders at the local and national levels. The fact that such initiatives exist demonstrates the critical role they can play in overcoming social and interfaith problems. However, these initiatives are often reactionary, responding to crises and interfaith violence in Indonesia, rather than being generated from a genuine awareness of the importance of managing diversity for the nation’s development.

This is why most of these initiatives have not addressed the root causes of diversity-related problems and are still dominated by the interests of certain figures or groups.

For example, the People’s Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB - Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama) was established to address problems related to religious harmony and the construction of religious institutes. FKUB chapters are run by provincial governments and regency governments, which are one level below provincial authorities and, in a number of cases, the forum has been used by the local authorities to close down religious houses of worship.

And yet, the greatest hope for Indonesian society comes from its religious leaders. Individually, or through associations, they have the potential to revive the prophetic spirit of religion: to accept differences, speak out and implement concrete action for justice, and refrain from temporal goals related to politics, power or money. With courage and openness, religious leaders and their communities can provide the necessary hope to shift the current paradigm in Indonesia.


* Elga J. Sarapung is Director of Institut DIAN/Interfidei, the oldest of the existing interfaith dialogue groups in Indonesia. This article is part of a series on spiritual leaders and interfaith dialogue written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 19 October 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
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Other articles in this series

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