Photo courtesy of FPLAG

Nine-year-olds Ajeng, facing the camera, and Agnes wrote their prayers and hung them on the tree of hope during Sunday school as part of the children’s trauma healing activities. They hope there will be no more bombing, and they also wrote prayers for the family of the bomber who died in the attack. Their last names are not known.

SALATIGA, Indonesia – On Sept. 25, 2011, a bomb detonated at Bethel Full Gospel Church in Solo, a city in Central Java, killing the suicide bomber and injuring 24 people as they exited the morning worship service. Eleven of the injured required surgery.

This incident was widely reported to have been organized and perpetrated by a small group of militants that identified itself as Muslim.

Members of the Forum Across Religions and Groups (FPLAG), an interfaith peace forum, went into action within hours to discourage inflammatory reactions within their religious groups. FPLAG is a partner of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

By 7 p.m., leaders of major religions in the city were joined by the mayor of Solo to discuss what had happened and what steps to take to prevent further violence.

They all traveled to the church to present an official statement, which said in part that Muslims and other interfaith leaders rejected the bombing as a religious expression of Islam. This message was broadcast nationwide over television and radio.

“Afterward, the leaders stayed in front of the church, praying until 1 a.m.,” said Paulus Hartono, a Mennonite pastor and founding member of FPLAG. During the following weeks and months, Hartono’s team followed up on the initial response by providing trauma healing services for those impacted by the bombing.

MCC’s partnership with this interfaith group comes through group members who are part of Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia Mennonite church in Solo. MCC accompanies the church in its interfaith initiatives, said Jeanne Jantzi, MCC Indonesia representative with her spouse Dan Jantzi. They are from Lowville, N.Y.

“Important bridges are being built among Indonesian Christians and Indonesians of other faiths, and also between MCC’s North American Christians and Indonesians who are committed to interfaith action for peace,” Jeanne Jantzi said.

Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims of any country in the world, although it officially has a secular government. Numerous other religions are firmly established in the area, including Buddhism and Christianity. Past violence has been blamed on religious differences, although the root causes are often more complex, including violence stemming from economic disparity, ethnic conflict and land issues, according to Hartono.

FPLAG was formed in response to the Solo riots of 1999 when multiple religious groups, including Mennonites, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and others, joined together to distribute relief aid. Since then the faith groups have worked together on other disaster responses and economic empowerment, as well as many projects that promote peace and reconciliation.

The purpose of the interfaith forum is not to reach a theological consensus, but to establish connections in the hopes of reducing violence and tensions within Solo, a city commonly linked to violence in Indonesia.

FPLAG has 25 members, representing every major religious group within Solo. The group meets every two months, and its meeting location rotates between its members’ worship centers.

“One month it will be at a church, next time it will be at a mosque, next it will be in a temple,” explains Pak Almunawar, a Muslim leader and long-time participant of FPLAG. Almunawar said the group’s main goals are “to decrease the potential of radicalism in Solo” and to “build peace and keep the peace image.”

Since 2001, FPLAG members have mapped all houses of worship and potential conflict areas in Solo and have created a telephone tree network among religious leaders in Solo. Any violent incident is reported immediately to other FPLAG members so they are able to respond quickly and efficiently to volatile situations.

“These religious leaders, who have committed to working for peace in their city, then work among their own religion’s members to stop the violence and to respond in ways that bring healing and restoration,” said Jantzi.

Trauma healing is one way FPLAG helps people process and move on with their lives after devastating events, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, wars and acts of terrorism. Hartono said that FPLAG and other similar organizations believe that focusing on psychological needs of those affected by the violence encourages healing that leads to peace.

After the September incident, Hartono’s team started its trauma work by determining who was most affected by the event, listening to their stories and assessing the level of trauma. Then they helped to connect people with resources, such as group or individual therapy.

The team also works with the community to help them understand trauma and the importance of making time to deal with the emotional effects of the incident.

“One of the biggest challenges of trauma healers in Indonesia is to break down the common misconception that traumatized people have a psychological disorder,” Hartono said. Others see going to a psychologist as a sign of weak faith, he said.

“Trauma healers, therefore, have to teach that trauma can affect anyone, is not a form of insanity and can be healed,” Hartono said.

In this situation, the team also taught Sunday school teachers from the bombed church to recognize signs of trauma in children and to help the children work through their fear.

One teacher, Julianto Prasetya, said he used what he learned with his own children, ages 8 and 11, to help them get over their fear of returning to church. Activities in October for children at the church have helped them move on with their lives. The trauma work with children and adults also has increased Sunday school attendance from 800 to 900 people.

There can be no doubt that working for peace in such a turbulent climate is a challenging task. But Almunawar feels confident that it can make a difference. “To make a bomb and do a bombing is easy,” he says, “but to build the image of peace is difficult. We are stronger than the bombers.”

Laura Dueckman is a participant in MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program, and is based in Indonesia. She is from Abbotsford, B.C.