Will Indonesia be Pope Francis’ next Asian trip?

Pope Francis is on record as saying that the future of the church is in Asia. He hopes to reach an accord with China that could open up new horizons for evangelization in the world’s most populous country and has already visited the continent on two occasions: to South Korea in August 2014, and to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015. He has since received invitations from several Asian governments, including Japan, Pakistan and Timor-Leste; and sources say he is keen to return again to the continent where two-thirds of humanity lives.

Though a decision will not be taken before the fall, already one country appears to have a particularly good chance: Indonesia. Among the reasons why Francis might decide to go there is that it will host the Asian Youth Day at Yogyakarta, a city on the island of Java, from July 30 to Aug. 6. The pope attended the last such youth event in South Korea in August 2014 and had such a highly successful encounter with young people from most Asian countries that he might wish to attend this one too.

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There are other important reasons too why Indonesia is high on the list of possible venues for Francis’ next visit to Asia. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Some 90 percent of its 270 million people are Muslim, 9 percent are Christian (Catholics count for over 3 percent, with 7.5 million faithful); most of the others are Buddhist (0.6 percent) or Kong Hu Chu (Confucian).

Although this is a majority-Muslim country, Indonesia is not an Islamic state; it is a pluralist society based on the Pancasila (Five Principles); the first of these principles is belief in one supreme god. The founding fathers of this country with 15,000 islands and 400 ethnic groups agreed that Indonesia is neither a secular nor a theocratic state, and though various attempts have been made since independence in 1945 to impose Shariah law within the Constitution, none have succeeded. Indonesia has experienced authoritarian rule at some periods since independence, but it remains a democracy.

In recent decades, in particular, there have been Christian-Muslim tensions in some parts of the country; nevertheless the church enjoys religious freedom and actively engages in dialogue with other religions, especially Islam. Indonesia and the Holy See established diplomatic relations in 1947 and have exchanged high-level visits and jointly engaged in interfaith dialogue and fostering good relations between the different religions in this land, where Christianity first arrived with the Nestorians in the seventh century.

In addition to the above, there is another reason why this first Jesuit pope might wish to come to Indonesia: St. Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit missionary, companion of St. Ignatius Loyola and a cofounder of the Society of Jesus. He arrived in Amboina (an island of eastern Indonesia in the Moluccas, where the Portuguese settled in the 16th century) and evangelized the people there and elsewhere over a 14-month period in 1546-47 and so started the organized missionary work of the Jesuits in this land.

The Indonesian bishops want Francis to come for Asian Youth Day. So does the government, as the new Indonesian ambassador to the Holy See made clear when he presented his credentials to the pope on March 21. Francis responded noncommittally, saying, “I would be happy to come to Indonesia if I could,” but his words were widely reported in Indonesia and are being interpreted in a positive sense.

If Francis were to go to Indonesia, he would be the third pope to visit the country. Paul VI went there in 1970 (and also visited Pakistan and seven other countries). John Paul II arrived in 1989 and also went to East Timor, then a province of Indonesia but now an independent state—Timor-Leste, which has just celebrated the fifth centenary of its evangelization and wants Francis to visit. It is worth mentioning that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, traveled to Timor-Leste for that celebration but first visited Indonesia. Francis might do the same, unless he opts to go instead to Pakistan, the country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, which has been in the eye of the storm for some time. Gerard O’Connell

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