In an Indonesian city, the sight of a flame burning for tolerance brought together people divided by religion. Now, the Peace Torch is making its way around the country as a symbol of the strength of diversity.

From 1965 to 1998 in Indonesia, the 33-year dictatorship of Suharto suppressed all forms of opposition and manipulated differences between ethnic and religious groups, ensuring that dissent would not result in a unified opposition. During its takeover in 1965, the regime used extrajudicial disappearances and killings, targeting anyone remotely progressive, leftist, or Chinese. Estimates of those killed during this period range from 500,000 to 1 million people.

A student movement in 1998 helped bring that dictatorship to an end, and many people were hopeful that the violence would end with it. Unfortunately, that hope was short-lived. The reform movement soon degenerated into chaos and, once again, there was senseless violence, including the targeting of ethnic Chinese.

At the same time, a transformation was taking place in the villages. Youth—who often dropped out of elementary school—were in an identity crisis. Their villages were not entirely rural anymore, but neither were they urban. There was an understanding of the city, but not access to the benefits from its bright lights. The old ways were rapidly eroding, even collapsing, in the face of globalization, commercialization, and Westernization. Some of these youth seemed remarkably vulnerable to hating “the other,” however defined, and easily provoked to violence and radicalization. Resentments grew, and acts of violence continued.

By 2011, intolerance toward Christians was on the rise in many parts of Indonesia, where Muslims make up the majority. Churches were closed and even burned in some places. Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyah, Shia, and others have also been subjected to persecution and violence.

In contrast to much of the country, Protestants and Catholics are the majority in Kupang, West Timor. As anger over these incidents rose, local youth started talking about taking revenge on the Muslim minority. Rumors and misinformation spread, threatening to spark violence.

It wouldn’t have been the first time. Violence had erupted toward Muslims in this very area in the late 1990’s, during the student-led reform movement.

The area is home to Zarniel Woleka, a man who gives the impression that he is always joking, with a light-hearted way of expressing himself, and because of the fact he says “I love you” so often, it is almost a tagline. But there is no doubting his serious commitment to championing diversity and inclusion, which he works on “from West Timor, for Indonesia.”

It was against the backdrop of rising inter-religious tensions that Zarniel attended an AFSC-organized youth conference on diversity and inclusion in 2011 in Yogyakarta. Zarniel remembers the tension during this time as “a landmine, which at any time could explode and destroy many people.”

The youth attending the conference wanted to act, to reverse the worrying rise in violence and intolerance.

They came up with an idea to create a Peace Torch that would travel across the archipelago as a symbol for peace, diversity, and inclusion, drawing on Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage of diversity and mutual cooperation for support.

Zarniel brought the idea back to Kupang, where he was the secretary of the annual Easter parade, and with local partners, made the Peace Torch a reality. They enlisted a group of youth from different faith backgrounds to carry the Peace Torch at the front of the Easter parade.

On the day of the parade, as they marched through the city, the Peace Torch touched an emotional chord with the tens of thousands of spectators lining the streets. Residents of the Muslim neighborhood were crying and shouting their support. Scores of religious and community leaders participated. The mayor of Kupang City and the governor of the province were there to light the Peace Torch and read out loud the Peace Pledge written by local diversity activists, which would become a tradition at each successive Peace Torch celebration.

Since that day, the Peace Torch has been paraded and celebrated in several contexts. As Zarniel explains, “The Peace Torch is a tool for campaigning, so that people are moved to share with their family, relatives, and communities that we live in diversity and we should guard that as a mutual belief. Through the Peace Torch, I am sure that there are many hearts that are filled with love…”

Birth of a national movement

After the parade in Kupang, Zarniel and the youth who had carried the Peace Torch were so excited by the experience that they formed an interfaith community called KOMPAK, the Kupang Peacemakers Community, to continue campaigning for diversity and inclusion.

For Zarniel, KOMPAK “is the proof that we can live the diversity that we have.” He works for this to become “the spirit for all people who live in this home we call Indonesia.”

In the spirit of nonviolence based on compassion and conscience, KOMPAK developed an active nonviolence curriculum, which they have used to train more than 1,000 youth who have also become KOMPAK members.

KOMPAK has gone on to organize frequent interfaith exchanges at the grassroots level, including a Christmas celebration at a Muslim orphanage and communal fastbreaking during the Muslim fasting month. KOMPAK members were active in advocating for peaceful mayoral and gubernatorial electoral campaigns, which historically have had a high potential for violence.

At the request of the Protestant Evangelical Church of Timor, KOMPAK’s active nonviolence has been adopted by churches throughout the province. In addition, the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs invited Zarniel to share KOMPAK’s experience and success with organizing youth in different forums with youth from across the Indonesian archipelago. More recently, Zarniel has started to spread active nonviolence beyond West Timor, conducting trainings for other AFSC partners in Aceh and planning for one in Yogyakarta.

Standing against intolerance

In 2014, the Peace Torch will come to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and largest city. When it arrives, Nia Sjarifudin will be among those celebrating. As the coordinator of the Unity Diversity Alliance, a national organization concerned with protecting Indonesia’s diversity from intolerance, she is also among the organizers of the event.

“Concern over the rapid growth of intolerance… makes the timing very good [for the Peace Torch to be celebrated in Jakarta],” says Nia, “because right now Indonesia is facing threats of forced uniformity, which is at odds with the reality of Indonesia’s diversity.”

Those threats include limitations on the right to worship by religious minorities or anyone deemed “heretical” by mainstream religious leaders. In the absence of government action, religious vigilantes are attempting to “purify” Islam through threats and violence, spreading fear and intimidation and resulting in loss of life.

Though such intolerance has recently increased and intensified, there is new energy and determination in Indonesia to draw on a rich legacy of tolerance and peace, thanks to Zarniel, Nia, and hundreds of others.

—Jiway Tung

Jiway is AFSC’s country representative in Indonesia, where he has lived since 1992. In the 1990s, he experienced the birth of the student movement, but after seeing violence and intolerance increase, he started to engage more deeply at the community level. He joined AFSC nearly four years ago.

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