ROME – As Indonesia prepares to welcome Pope Francis in September, two of the country’s clergy have voiced hope that while visiting a high-profile mosque, the pope will walk an underground tunnel that connects it to the Catholic cathedral across the street.

While the official program for the pope’s visit to Indonesia has yet to be published, Indonesian Father Markus Solo, an official with the Vatican Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, said that currently, the second day of the Sept. 3-6 papal visit “is dedicated to interreligious dialogue.”

In this spirit, a large interreligious event is being planned at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, which sits directly across the street from the Catholic Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral, that will be attended by representatives of the country’s various religious communities.

Nasaruddin Umar, grand imam of the mosque in Central Jakarta, told local media Monday that the pope would visit the mosque on Sept. 5.

The largest mosque in Southeast Asia and the ninth largest mosque in the world in terms of worshipper capacity, Istiqlal Mosque was built to commemorate Indonesia independence in 1945. The Arabic word ‘Istiqlal’ means ‘independence.’

Solo, who is the first and only curial official from Indonesia, said the choice to hold the interreligious event at Istiqlal Mosque “is very interesting” given its proximity to the cathedral.

The two structures, he said, share a parking lot, and when one community holds a major event or during special highly attended spiritual gatherings, the other will allow use of their share of the parking spaces.

He said a tunnel was also built connecting the two as “a sign of fraternity, of friendship, of peace and of harmony” between Catholics, and Christians generally, and Muslims.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1890 and concluded in 1901, while the mosque was built in 1954. Work on the tunnel – called the “Friendship tunnel” or the “Brotherhood tunnel,” began in December 2020, and concluded almost a year later, in September 2021.

“We are very proud that this is the first tunnel between a church and a mosque in the world,” Solo said, saying organizers of the papal visit “strongly hope that the pope can pass through.”

Currently, it’s on the schedule, however, whether it happens or not “depends on his health,” Solo said, noting that the pontiff will have to go down into the tunnel and make his way up the other side.

Jakarta will be the first stop on the pope’s nearly two-week visit to Asia and Oceania this fall, making a September 2-13 voyage that will take him to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Singapore.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, with adherents to Islam making up roughly 87 percent of the overall population of 275.5 million. Around 10 percent of the population is Christian, with Protestants representing around seven percent, and Catholics about 3.1 percent. There are also small percentages of adherents to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

According to Solo, who spoke to journalists during a June 24 media roundtable on the pope’s visit to Indonesia, interreligious dialogue is “a challenge” in Indonesia and is not always easy, but is something that is “essential” to daily life.

“Indonesians take a lot of initiatives to do dialogue,” he said, noting that these efforts are made by both Muslims and those belonging to other religions, and “Dialogue as a daily bread in Indonesia is already something good.”

He said many people belonging to different religions want to participate in the papal visit, and that in his dicastery, he has received numerous requests from Muslims who want to meet the pope in order to invite him to visit again in person.

“This is already very positive, an encouragement to continue dialogue,” he said, voicing his belief that the papal visit will give the Catholic Church more visibility in Indonesia.

Father Kenny Ang, a teaching assistant in the Department of Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, drew a distinction between Islam in Indonesia and Islam elsewhere, such as in the Middle East.

There is often a perception, he said, that Indonesian Muslims “are those from the Middle East,” with a common language and “fundamentalist” ideology.

“This is not true. Not all Muslims are radical or fundamentalists,” Ang said, saying, “it’s not a Muslim country, it’s a country with a Muslim majority.”

Westerners at times have the impression that Catholics in Indonesia are persecuted, he said, but insisted that this is not the case, and that the Indonesian constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom.

“There are incidents against it, yes… but it’s not that these incidents happen every day. It’s occasional,” he said, saying Indonesia “is not homogenous. It’s too big, it’s impossible to dominate.”

Ang said the government has made efforts in recent years to eradicate fundamentalist groups from the country, “because they see that development happens when this fundamentalist idea is not present.”

In terms of Catholics themselves, both Solo and Ang said they welcomed news of the papal visit “with great joy,” and that even non-Catholics are excited about it.

Catholic life in Indonesia is vibrant, they said, with parishes often overflowing and with strong involvement from the laity, and young people.

Ang, who served in a parish prior to coming to Rome four years ago, said there were several Masses on the weekends and during weekdays, and that faithful often “take initiative” in organizing countless activities outside of the liturgy.

In Indonesia, “there is a structural organization of laity who do everything. Laity have this concept that to be true Catholics, you must be involved in the parochial structure,” he said, saying, “there is involvement with parish, otherwise something is missing.”

Masses, he said, are often scheduled as early as five or six in the morning, with children attending before school and parents before work.

According to Solo, the pastor of a parish “is never alone, never in solitude,” because parish houses are “always full of people” and “there is a strong brotherhood among them.”

“There are certainly temptations of interiority, being a minority, to close ourselves in our group and not to go out to encounter others. We must be aware of this temptation, to remain in our closed environment,” he said, noting that Christians also enjoy a good reputation in public life.

Though a small minority, the Catholic Church in Indonesia “enjoys a strong political influence,” a fact Solo attributes to the Church’s “strong social commitment” through its network of hospitals, schools, and other public services.

“We cannot be president of the state, nor the vice president, nor governor of Jakarta or other cities. It’s not written, but we can’t,” he said, but insisted that there are many Catholic ministers and actors in public life.

Catholicism in Indonesia “is old but young at the same time,” he said, noting that it dates back to the 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came to the country.

Solo said he wished he could bring the empty churches in Rome and Europe to Indonesia, since theirs are overflowing, “but you can’t.”

“I always say Catholicism in Indonesia is an ancient but young reality, very lively…it’s a Church that existed in ancient times, but the spirit of the Church remains young and very lively, very dynamic,” he said.

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