Land of Headhunters Gets a New Bishop

Father Aloysius Sustrisnaatmaka on Borneo´s Ordeal

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VATICAN CITY, MAR. 7, 2001 (ZENIT.org-FIDES).- What will a new bishop do when his territory includes headhunters?



That is the challenge confronting Father Aloysius Sustrisnaatmaka, the newly designated bishop for Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo, in the Indonesian archipelago. In recent days missionaries have reported ethnic strife here which has led to 3,000 decapitations.

Many of the inhabitants of this island, one of the largest of the world (220,000 square miles and 10.5 million inhabitants), come from Madura, north of Java. They have been attacked by the aboriginal peoples, the Dayaks, enraged after having suffered an attack in December. At present, they have gathered their forces among all the inhabitants of the island belonging to their ethnic group, and launched a revenge attack, taking recourse to the ancestral practice of beheading "unworthy" immigrants.

Java-born Father Sustrisnaatmaka, 47, will be ordained a bishop next month. He will lead a Catholic community of 52,000. In this interview with the missionary agency Fides, Father Sustrisnaatmaka explains what his strategy will be to promote the restoration of peace.

--Q: What will be your priorities as bishop in that bloodied island?

--Father Sustrisnaatmaka: It is urgent to work for dialogue and reconciliation between Madurese and Dayaks, who constitute the majority of the population. This violence is tragic and surprising. The diocesan administrator of Palangkaraya has told me that there might be some 3,000 dead. The Church will make all her resources available for the dialogue. I will speak with the leaders of the factions. Other aspects of the pastoral [program] are the improvement of the economic conditions of the indigenous tribes, and social and educational work.

--Q: What steps must be taken to restore peace?

--Father Sustrisnaatmaka: The leaders of both factions must be brought together in semiofficial meetings, to find provisional solutions. In addition, people will have to be divided into ethnic groups, so that calm will return.

The second step is to foster the employment of Dayaks, and the integration of the natives in the socioeconomic fabric.

In the third place, the local administration of the provinces must be shared, the property of the Javanese and the Madurese. Although a minority, the Church must contribute its effort of mediation to give incentive to dialogue and reconciliation. It is a difficult task but, as a man of faith, I have confidence in peace and am optimistic.

--Q: Aren´t you afraid of being rejected because of your Javanese ethnic identity?

--Father Sustrisnaatmaka: I am not afraid. The Dayak Catholic community is very peaceful; the natives have a tender heart and accept immigrants. I will try to help the local clergy and catechists theologically and pastorally, and will seek financial support abroad. Along with the other bishops of Borneo -- two belong to my religious congregation, the Missionaries of the Holy Family -- we will work together for peace in Kalimantan [the Indonesian part of Borneo].

--Q: What are the real reasons for the conflict?

--Father Sustrisnaatmaka: The principal root is the contrast between the wealth of the Madurese and the poverty of the Dayaks. The former are great workers and good businessmen; the resources of the natives are nature and land. Sometimes, Madurese immigrants do not respect the culture of the native tribes. This has caused hatred, which the government has been unable to control.

--Q: How is evangelization progressing in Borneo?

--Father Sustrisnaatmaka: Transport is by river; there are no telephones or electricity in the villages. Evangelization is very difficult. It is done through human contact. Catechists and missionaries visit villages and speak with tribal chiefs. Their role is very important; people listen to them. Over the past four years, we have had 10,000 baptisms in the Diocese of Palangkaraya.

--Q: What do you think of the political situation in Indonesia?

--Father Sustrisnaatmaka: Indonesia is experiencing political struggles that generate insecurity and fear of the country´s fragmentation. However, unity is a decisive good: There are over 300 tribes in the country that can live together in liberty and democracy, and certainly not with the oppression of the past.