Director of the First Interfaith Organization in Indonesia
Th. Sumartana was an Indonesian Protestant Christian leader who first entered into interfaith dialogue over the issue of development. He was critical of using religion to serve narrowly defined viewpoints on development. Religious leaders must remain free to speak out on behalf of social justice, he argued.
Efforts to Eleviate Poverty and Encourage Democracy
In this mainly Muslim country, Sumartana entered into dialogue with other Christian and Muslim intellectuals to explore ways that their faiths could support people’s hope for liberation from the poverty grinding down so many in Indonesia and other developing countries.
In 1991 Sumartana began the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia, or Interfidei, the first interfaith organization in the country. Interfidei was supported by both Christian and Muslim intellectual activists. As Interfidei’s director, Sumartana sought more than expressions of religious harmony. His broader goal was bring religious groups together in helping Indonesia develop a more open democracy.
He wanted Interfidei to become a model of pluralism. He wrote,
This pluralistic nature would in turn become the most human way to solve our social problems together peacefully.
This was a huge challenge and sometimes drew criticisms, but Sumartana was critical of the historical record within his own Christian religious tradition. He thought Christians needed to free themselves from their intolerance of Islam, if they were to become an effective force for democracy in this mainly Muslim country. He made the same point about Islam, underlining that Muslim exclusivity in Indonesia did not serve the larger goal of building a democracy with justice for all.
He liked to quote Hans Küng:
There is no peace within a community without inter-religious peace.
To support their vision of religious peace and democracy, Interfidei hosted seminars, conducted training in conflict resolution, published articles, conducted research and invited people of different faiths to share in common prayer.
In the late 1990s violence between religious communities erupted across Indonesia with many massacres and the burning of dozens of churches. Critical voices said that interfaith dialogue was ineffective. However, Sumartana and others in Interfidei understood that the process of promoting pluralism and democracy was a long and difficult journey. Inter-religious violence should not cause people to give up on building relationships across religious divides but rather should inspire people to intensify those efforts, Sumartana believed. Ultimately, the relationships established through the interfaith dialogue by Interfidei and other interfaith groups were helpful in opening conversations that could prevent further outbreaks of violence.
Sumartana died in 2002, leaving an influential example for Indonesians as one of the nation’s interfaith pioneers.