Jakarta - The eastern Indonesian province of Papua, a once largely Christian and Catholic territory, has seen a rise in conversions to Islam. The news has caused shock and disbelief among the faithful, but it comes as no surprise to local clergymen who know well the area, its people and the problems they face every day.
The crucial issue is the way mission is promoted in the province. Communities are far too often left to fend for themselves. Priests are able to visit them only a few times a year, sometimes only at Christmas and Easter. By contrast, Muslim merchants have established thriving businesses and a stable presence. They provide basic items, like cement and tobacco, and through trade, can make a breakthrough in religious matters and convert the natives.
The latest case occurred on 19 February at the Darussalam Mosque in Jatibening, East Jakarta. A tribal Asmat man, Sinentius Kayimter, from the Diocese of Timika, West Papua Province, embraced Islam taking on the name of Umbar Abdullah Kayimter. His wife and 12-year-old son, Salim Abdullah Siwir, did the same. The case was related in an Islamic newspaper, the Jakarta Republika.
In recent months, a Papua Muslim religious leader Fadzlan Garamathan spoke about the conversion of locals in the West Papuan capital of Manokwari. The paper attributes the phenomenon to two factors. First, Islam can help revive the local culture, and Muslims do not lie to locals.
Contacted by AsiaNews, a priest with many years in the Diocese of Timika, who asked his name be withheld, confirmed the trend of conversions among native Papuans and tribal people, who are increasingly attracted to Islam.
At the same time, Muslims from Java and South Sulawesi have moved to Papua to build a new life. Unofficial data indicate that 60 per cent of the population in Papua is made up of non-native outsiders. The indigenous population, mostly Christian or Catholic, are about 40 per cent. "This is why we cannot say that Papua is Christian territory."
Poverty and backwardness are widespread in the province even though it is a treasure trove of mineral wealth, including gas, gold and other minerals.
Indigenous communities live in remote, hard-to-reach areas, which missionaries visit a few times a year, travelling on ultra-light airplanes.
Typically, Muslims are merchants who become permanent residents, open businesses such as food stands or stores selling cement or tobacco. This way, they can easily earn the trust of locals, who come to depend on them for vital supplies.
Thinking about his experience among Papuans, the priest bitterly said, "Never forget to bring tobacco," adding, "No cigarettes, no alleluia."
The Catholic Diocese of Timika, Papua, includes 25 parishes and at least 85,000 members spread over five regions: Teluk Cendrawasih, Paniai, Kamu-Mapia, Puncak Jaya and Mimika-Agimuga.
However, only 24 priests, 35 nuns and 4 seminarians serve the area. which covers 24 per cent of Papua Province. The latter is divided in eight districts: Biak-Numfor, Mimika, Nabire, Paniai, Puncak Jaya, Serui, Supiori, and Yapen-Waropen.
In order to travel between communities, clergymen use planes provided by the Associated Mission Aviation (AMA)