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Rebuilding peace by building a mosque

In Kupang, community opposition to building a new mosque was related to perceptions of unfair treatment of Christians elsewhere in Indonesia. Though there is a Christian majority in Kupang, Christians are the minority in most of the country. Photo: AFSC

Love is an important principle in every religion. For 25 youth of different religious backgrounds in the Indonesian village of Batuplat, love has become a shared value that brings them together.

Their unity in the name of nonviolence is an especially powerful testament to the power of love given that just two years ago, many of these youth stood on opposing sides of a conflict over the construction of a mosque in their village.

Though Indonesia as a whole has a Muslim majority, Muslims are a minority in West Timor, where Batuplat is located.

In 2011, the Muslim community in Batuplat decided to build a mosque to replace the smaller prayer hall they had previously used as a house of worship. National regulations required that, to build a new house of worship, a building committee had to collect 60 signatures from the surrounding residents supporting construction of the mosque.

The predominately Catholic residents of Batuplat objected to the plan because they heard that some of the signatures were falsified by the mosque building committee.

In reaction, someone vandalized the mosque plaque. This prompted Kupang’s mayor to temporarily halt the construction and establish a nine-member team to seek a way to peacefully continue constructing the mosque.

This case was important as a reflection of a dynamic that plays out elsewhere in Indonesia in which the majority community uses discriminatory government regulations to deny the right of minority communities to build new houses of worship.

In most of the country, it is minority Protestants and Catholics who have been denied their right to build new churches. In West Timor, however, the same regulation was used by majority Christians to deny Muslims their right to build a new mosque.

During the two years that the Batuplat mosque project was on hold, the story of the village’s opposition to the mosque became known throughout Indonesia.

KOMPAK, an interfaith youth organization that supports freedom of religion for all but especially for minorities—whoever and wherever they are—decided to get involved with the Batuplat case. KOMPAK was formed by youth who attended an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)-organized youth pluralism conference in Yogyakarta, and then went on to help organize the inaugural Peace Torch celebration during Kupang’s 2011 Easter parade, also with AFSC support.

In Batuplat, KOMPAK youth started by visiting the community and listening to residents’ feelings and complaints.

Zarniel Woleka, founder of KOMPAK, said that construction of houses of worship should not be that difficult, and that community opposition was related to perceptions of unfair treatment of Christians elsewhere—on Java, where Christians are the minority.

Zarniel believed that these opinions could be expressed without resorting to violence, and an agreement could be reached restoring communal ties and harmony between the majority Christian community and the Muslim minority.

KOMPAK decided to offer youth of all religions training in active nonviolence (ANV) because youth are commonly used as targets or proxies in a conflict. KOMPAK has trained more than 800 youth in active nonviolence throughout the East Nusa Tenggara Province.

“In most conflicts, youth tend to be both actors and victims as they care a lot, but this spirit is often misused by older people for the sake of their own interests, which brings about negative impacts on youth,” explains a KOMPAK member.

Youth also have high mobility and communicate with their own family members and neighbors.

Through the two-day training, the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant youth learned to recognize and analyze interreligious conflicts and the ways to build peace. They were also trained in ways to resist violence using nonviolence.

At the beginning, they tended to group with others of the same religious background and found it hard to mingle with others.

But after the active nonviolence training, some participants said that they understood diversity better, and that conflicts could be caused by misunderstanding diversity. They also recognized the importance of nonviolent resolution of conflict.

Now, the construction of the mosque has started again with better communication between Christian and Muslim residents. Approval is still needed by the local Interreligious Harmony Forum, and gaining this approval is now the focus of attention for KOMPAK and alumni from the Batuplat active nonviolence training.

The hope is that once built, the Batuplat mosque will not only be a symbol of religious freedom and harmony in West Timor, but also a reminder throughout Indonesia of the importance of protecting the rights of minorities—no matter who or where they are.

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