YANGON, Myanmar — Details are beginning to emerge of a potential trip by Pope Francis to Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea in September.
Indonesian Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodhjo, head of the Indonesian bishops’ conference, said Vatican trip planners would visit the country with the world’s largest population of Muslims in March. He told the Jakarta Post Pope Francis might celebrate Mass at the Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium in Jakarta. He also would visit St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Jakarta.
Interfaith relations will be a key focus of the visit, with Suharyo saying the pope hopes to visit a mosque.
Yahya Cholil Staquf, a Muslim cleric and secretary-general of the world’s largest moderate largest Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama, said in February that Pope Francis could visit the three countries.
It would be Francis’s second trip to Asia in 12 months; he visited Thailand and Japan in October.
Catholicism is very much a minority faith in Indonesia, representing just 3 percent of the population of about 264 million people, or 15 million people.
East Timor, Asia’s newest nation, is the opposite. On paper, it is Asia’s most Catholic country, with about 90 percent of its 1.3 million people members of the Catholic Church. Last year, Pope Francis upgraded the Diocese of Dili to metropolitan archdiocese status. Dili has two suffragan dioceses, Bacau and Maliana. There have been discussions for a fourth diocese in recent years.
East Timor declared independence from Portugal in 1975 but was almost immediately invaded by Indonesia. The Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara shares Timor Island with East Timor. International forces were deployed to East Timor in 1999 and, in 2002, it was recognized as an independent country.
St. John Paul II visited East Timor in 1989. Michael Leach, professor of international politics at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, said that visit is still celebrated in Dili as something of a turning point in the nation’s fight for independence.
“That was when the revolutionaries knew they could come from the bush into the towns,” he said, noting the fervor which with the Polish pope was greeted in Dili.
Papua New Guinea is part of the Pacific region of the Catholic Church, even though it shares an island with the Christian-majority Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. About 27 percent of Papua New Guinea’s 8 million people are Catholic.
A September papal trip would will come at a delicate time, when the heavily Christian Indonesian provinces are agitating for independence. As well, the autonomously governed Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville, which is more than 60 percent Catholic, overwhelmingly voted for its independence from the mainland in a December 2019 referendum.
In 2016, Pope Francis named Archbishop John Ribat as the nation’s first cardinal.
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