"I Believe in the Future of Orthodoxy in Indonesia"


A Conversation with Archimandrite Daniel (Byantoro)


On Monday June 15, Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro arrived in Moscow with his fellow priest Fr. Alexios. Fr. Daniel is the first Indonesian convert to Orthodoxy and the founder and heart of the struggling Orthodox Church there. He came to Russia for several days to visit holy sites, hierarchs and friends, and to spread the word of his mission to his spiritual brothers and sisters in Russia. On Wednesday he sat down for an interview with Pravoslavie.ru in which he spoke about his country and its Christian history.


At a public lecture the night before given at the Fund of Slavic Culture Fr. Daniel spoke more about his own conversion experience. Raised in an entirely Islamic village, all that he knew of Christianity came from the Koran: as Christians worship three Gods, turned a prophet into God and made God weak, unable to save His prophet from crucifixion, they are going to hell. Islam denies that Christ is the Son of God; they deny the Trinity as well as the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and therefore, as Fr. Daniel noted, they deny the entirety of Christian teaching (see Koran 5:72, 73, 98:6 which Fr. Daniel referenced easily from memory).

According to Islamic belief, all the prophets from Adam to Christ were Muslims—Judaism and Christianity are but deviations from the pure religion of Islam. And what’s more, as Fr. Daniel expounded the night before over dinner, Muslims believe that everything in creation is naturally Muslim, submitting to the will of God. Apart from any outside influences everyone would naturally grow up to worship the God of the Muslims. Orthodox Christianity also teaches that human will naturally finds its telos in Christ, although we inherit a fallen mode of human nature. Conversely, Islam teaches that to leave the religion is to wholly forfeit your human nature—that is, Christians, Jews, and others are not human, and therefore it is permissible to deceive and terribly abuse them when expedient and for the desired end of their conversion. As Fr. Daniel emphasized, these are two competing systems—both cannot be true. We are called to make a firm decision and be educated in our decision to lead others to true human fulfillment in Christ.

Given this education he had no interest in Christianity, but questions about God remained with him. Islam is wholly iconoclastic; God cannot be imagined, and local Muslim clerics could not explain to him who is God, nor could the first Christian he met in high school explain the Trinity. His search continued until one night, in the midst of his evening prayers, he beheld a vision of light in the form of a man. He heard a voice in the depths of his being which said “if you want to be saved, follow Me.” When it happened again the next night he asked the identity of this vision. He shuddered at the answer: “Jesus Christ.” He was confused and disturbed—why, while worshiping as a Muslim, had he seen Christ, and not Mohammed? Again the third night Christ appeared to him, proclaiming that salvation has nothing to do with Mohammed but is found only in following Him.

Understandably, Fr. Daniel was confused—he believed what he had been taught, and he believed what he had seen. He fasted and prayed, and opening the Koran, his eyes fell on a passage that led to his conversion to Christ. Koran 3:45 speaks of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, referring to Jesus as the “Word” of God. Contemplating this verse he had read so many times, Fr. Daniel realized: man’s word comes out of his mouth but originates in his mind. This means man’s word is one with him, and if Jesus is God’s Word then He is one with God. The Word and the Speaker are one. But what of the Spirit? Man can only speak while living, and man lives because he has a spirit. Man’s spirit is within him, and thus his word and spirit are within him. Therefore God’s Word and Spirit are also within Him, and the God of the Christians is One. But why is the Word of God also called the Son of God? The Word resides within the mind, so the mind is pregnant with the word, and the mouth gives birth to the word, so the word is the child of the mind. Thus, if Jesus is the Word of God then He is also the Son of God. To have a Son God does not need a wife, for what is meant by Son is Word.

He further understood that among humans we cannot know each other without words, and so man can only know God by His Word. According even to the Koran the Word of God is Jesus, and therefore to know God He must know Christ. That night Fr. Daniel became a Christian.

Fr. Daniel became a Protestant, although he was confused by the multitude of denominations. He wanted the one, pure teaching of Christ that he knew from the Scriptures. In 1979 he began seminary studies in South Korea but his heart remained restless, until, in his final year, he happened upon an English copy of The Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. As have so many over the years since it was written, he found the unwavering Church of Jesus Christ for which his heart had been yearning since his conversion, and he soon learned that not far from his dormitory was located an Orthodox Church. His heart was home. On September 6, 1983, he became the first and only Orthodox Christian from Indonesia. From Korea he traveled to Greece, spending 10 months on Mount Athos where he became acquainted with the holy elder Emelianos. He then traveled to America where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1987.

On June 6, 1988 he returned home to Indonesia to found the Indonesian Orthodox Church. In 1989 he baptized the first convert—a young Muslim man, and in 1996 he founded Indonesia’s first Orthodox Church—the Holy Trinity parish in the city of Solo in the center of Java. Since then, by the grace of God, the mission has been slowly but steadily growing. Today there are 2,000 Orthodox Christians in 30 parishes and mission outposts, served by 14 priests (and four more have already reposed in the Lord). All converts are brought into the Church by the one Christian baptism regardless of their religious background.

Fr. Daniel believes that, despite the presence of Islam in Indonesia, there is great hope for Orthodoxy there. He hopes and believes that Indonesia will one day be an Orthodox country, and he looks to his spiritual brothers and sisters in Russia, who have endured and been strengthened by unspeakable suffering, to be a support for the struggling mission in Indonesia. Fr. Daniel called upon all Russians to once again become missionary beacons to the world and bring the light of Christ to all. He finished his remarks by emphasizing that we are seeing in the world today a rising culture of hatred and death, and the only way to defeat it is with the culture of love and life—that is, the culture of the Gospel, the culture of Orthodoxy, the culture that formed Russian 1,000 years ago. This culture, Fr. Daniel believes, does not need to be defended, but speaks for itself as the truth.

Fr. Daniel told more about the history and current state of the Orthodox mission in Indonesia:

—Father, tell us about your trip. What brought you to Russia?

—I came to Russia at the invitation of the committee for the celebration of the anniversary of the canonization of St. John of Kronstadt, and I also came to meet with our Russian hierarchs to discuss the status and needs of our mission in Indonesia. I wanted to meet with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, but that was not possible. I did meet with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, and with Archbishop Mark of Yegorievsk, and I was very satisfied with these meetings. I say that it is a miracle of God, because even without planning I was able to see the both of them. Secondly, I came to Moscow at the invitation of a group of laypeople who are the spiritual children of Fr. Matthew from Siberia. Last year they visited Indonesia, so they know our churches. They were searching for evidence of St. Matthew’s travels to Indonesia. They believe that St. Matthew visited that land. I went with them to the place, on the island of Sumatra, in the village of Barus. I see in our meeting in Indonesia the Providence of God, because then by invitation from St. Petersburg I was able to come to Moscow. I have been praying for this. So, I see that this is God’s Providence. And it’s no small miracle for me.

—Tell us a little bit about Indonesia as a country.

—Indonesia is an open country that has a lot of influence from cultures from all over the world. Indonesia does not have one culture—we consist of so many different races and ethnicities. We have nearly 700 languages and dialects. They are not spoken by people coming from outside, but by Indonesians. So, we have the yellow race, the brown race, Eurasian—a mix of Asian and European—and we have black people. Indonesia consists of over 17,000 islands. There are five main, large islands: Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan or Borneo, Sulawesi, and Papua. And the most famous island is of course Bali—everybody knows that one.

Historically, Indonesian people, especially western Indonesians, came from South China 5,000 years ago. And the black people may have come from Africa by raft, also around 5,000 years ago. At that time, people were animists or shamanists. At the beginning of the first century we began to have Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. The largest Buddhist kingdom we had was in the seventh century, called the Kingdom of Srivijaya. The largest and last Hindu kingdom was in the thirteenth century, called the Kingdom of Majapahit, which is my hometown. Islam arrived in the fifteenth century. This Hindu kingdom was destroyed, and Islamic kingdoms began to rule the country, up to today. The Dutch came to Indonesia in the sixteenth century; the Portuguese first came to Indonesia, but they were unable to stay for long because they were kicked out by the Dutch. The Dutch were unable to rule all of Indonesia but only different parts of the islands. Their rule lasted 350 years.

On October 28, 1928, an educated young Indonesian felt the need to unite our country against the Dutch, who had chopped up our country. Then we adopted the Malay language as our national language. It is similar to the language spoken in Malaysia but it developed differently. So at that time we recognized one Indonesian language, one country that consists of so many different islands and so many different ethnicities, tribes, and races. Our young people continued to fight the Dutch. On August 17, 1945 we were able to get our independence—it was not given but we fought for our independence. The first president was Mr. Sukarno, and he was the close friend of the Russian President Brezhnev. From 1945 until the 1960’s, Indonesia and Russia were in a very close relationship. In 1965 there was an attempted coup by the Communist party of Indonesia. But then there was a big massacre—more than two million Indonesians were massacred, by their own people, especially by the Muslim party. It was horrendous. Then President Sukarno was put under house arrest, and his general, Mr. Suharto, became dictator of Indonesia. International people called him a benevolent dictator. He was president for thirty-three years, after which he was toppled by a student demonstration in 1998. Then there was another disaster—the rape and looting of the Indonesian Chinese. It was another horrendous situation. After that we had an election, and since then we have had elections regularly; now we have our sixth president, and the country is a democratic republic.

—When did Christianity come to Indonesia?

—Christianity has deep roots in Indonesia, although they are thin. According to available documents, in the seventh century, before Islam came to Indonesia, there were Syriac Christian people in Indonesia, even during the kingdoms of Srivijaya and Majapahit. We do not know exactly whether they were Nestorian, Monophysite, or Syriac Byzantine. In the eleventh century there was an envoy from the Pope of Rome—a priest who visited Beijing, stopped over in Indonesia, and met with ten native Indonesian Christians. Presumably they were the remnant of those ancient Christians. And this Roman Catholic priest (possibly the Churches were not yet separated), according to this document, gave Communion to those Indonesian Christians. After that we do not hear any stories of Christianity in Indonesia. Later, a Roman priest visited the kingdom of Majapahit, but again there are no further histories. Christianity in the form of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism came to Indonesia through the Dutch and the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. While the Dutch were still in Indonesia, there were Armenian and Russian Christians. The Russians presumably came to Indonesia together with St. John of Shanghai. When they left China for the Philippines, some of them went to Indonesia, and then Archbishop John went to San Francisco. Those Russian people had two churches at that time—the church of St. John the Baptist in the city of Jakarta, as I was told (of course it is no longer there), and another in the city of Bandung. But during the massacre of 1965 these people fled Indonesia, so there is no trace of the Armenian or Russian people in Indonesia anymore. Thus, Orthodox Christianity came back to Indonesia when I started the mission. It will definitely stay in Indonesia, because I am not an immigrant or a foreigner. I am a son of the land. Spiritual Russia returned later.

—Could you tell us about the modern situation of Orthodox Christians in Indonesia.

—Of course the situation of the Orthodox Church in Indonesia is still weak, because we do not receive any help from anywhere, and financially I have to work hard to be able to sustain the mission. From time to time I go to America to raise funds, but they are not sufficient to help all the priests or even to obtain the things we need. I have to work, teaching at the university and giving seminars. I am invited to preach in non-Orthodox churches, because I need the money. With the money I save through my work, sometimes through gifts from non-Orthodox friends, I buy land and build simple churches on it. I also help the priests from time to time—sometimes with schooling their children, when their wives are sick, and many other things. It is fortunate that I’m not married; otherwise my wife would get angry with me because I have nothing! Whatever I get I use to help others. For two years I was helped by the Moscow Patriarchate—it has not been cut off completely. Not all of our priests were getting a share, so I gave what was given to me. I distributed to those priests who did not receive anything, so that I was left with nothing.

Now the Church is still growing in spite of these dire needs and difficulties. I give seminars in different cities and places in Indonesia to open new communities of Orthodox converts. With that the need to buy more land and build more churches is increasing. Now I am coming to a point where I cannot do it myself. I am getting older. My body does not cooperate with my zeal inside. The zeal does not subside—I still feel young inside, but my body cannot pretend that it is still young. My biggest desire is to build a monastery, because when I am not able to do anything then I need to go the monastery and start monastic life. With the small savings that I had I was able to buy a piece of land—2,000 square meters I think. So I bought the land already, but I was not able to continue building because I did not have enough money to build the monastery. Therefore, I appeal to anyone who is interested in helping to build a monastery. I am willing to name the monastery after the patron saint of the person who contributes—or however they want it to be named.

Another thing I want is to have a seminary, because it is important for people to be educated within the context of their own country and culture. The sense of the impending time to leave this world is very strong within me. The sense that God will call me home is very strong. I hope it is not soon, but you cannot tell. So that is why I need more young people to come along, to continue the efforts of the mission. I need to send students to study theology, hopefully in Russia, to replace me and Fr. Alexis when we are gone.

I think another urgent need that we have now concerns the first-built Orthodox Church in Indonesia in the city of Solo, in the center of Java, where Fr. Alexis is pastor. I bought that land. At first I rented the land from a Muslim cleric and then I was able to buy the land. In 1996 we bought the Holy Trinity church—the first ever Orthodox Church in Indonesia. And then I was able one-by-one to buy the other plots of land surrounding the church. This church was surrounded by Muslim neighbors. We were able to buy all this land around so that it could become our compound. However there are still four plots of land belonging to these Muslim neighbors, which we want to buy, so we can free the surrounding area to be the land belonging to the church. We need around $40,000 to free this land, and we are planning to build a wall around it to make it a historical landmark of our first Orthodox mission—so that when I die, our next generation will know that this is how Orthodoxy started.

Now we have altogether 2,000 people spread out all over Indonesia, with thirty churches and mission outposts, and it’s still growing. In Indonesia, any church or religion can operate only if it’s registered with the state. There are six religions recognized by the state. Islam is the majority of course, then Roman Catholicism, and then Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—the Chinese religion. These are the six recognized religions. We had a difficult time when we registered because we are not Roman Catholic and we are not Protestant. I was kicked around like a ball here and there. But through God’s grace and miracles the government was willing to accept us, and we were put in the Protestant department. They changed the name to the “Christian” department, because there are nownon-Protestants in it! So our presence changed the law, in a way.

I have good relations with all other non-Orthodox Christian leaders, because I cannot afford to be at enmity with them in our minority status. We are a minority within a minority, so I can’t isolate myself from the others. We have worked together with Protestants many times—of course, without compromising the faith. I always wear my black robe and my cross when I am in an official meeting with them to show them that I am not Protestant. Basically, Indonesian people are very tolerant. It is because of their Hindu and Buddhist background. But there is growing influence from the Middle East, especially the Wahhabi type of Islam. They create problems for us Christians. Many times they have destroyed churches, closed down churches, and in some areas they even kill Christians. We have difficulties with that. However I try very hard to have good relations with the Muslims—especially those who claim to be moderate. From time to time we have interfaith meetings, to discuss common concerns in the nation. However, I sometimes I feel wary, because what is on paper is not manifested on the ground. On paper of course we can be tolerant to one another, but on the ground they have many times burned our churches. So, I do not know which face of Islam I should believe. Also, the government has a law that if any Christians want to build a church, you must have at least ninety members from your area, and you must have sixty signatures from surrounding Muslim neighbors. To get two signatures is lucky—to get sixty is nearly impossible. Therefore, we have to try in different ways to get this permission—usually through diplomacy and connections. Sometimes we can prevail, many times not. But with God’s miracles, everything is possible.

Recently, I was invited to a radical Muslim madrasa—an Islamic boarding school. It has 6,000 students. They are planning to make an Islamic country out of Indonesia. I was surprised that I was invited to explain the Trinity in that place. Of course with them I had to use the primary sources—the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Arabic. By God’s grace I know those three languages. I also used the pattern of Islamic theological thought to explain to them. I was perhaps the first Christian clergyman to talk in that situation. When we went there, forty-five Protestant pastors escorted me, because they wanted to know what would happen. We went by bus, together. They wanted to protect me also—that is the fruit of my friendship with them. So to my surprise, after I finished my lecture, these Muslim clerics—one or two hundred of them, maybe more—gave me a long, standing ovation. They came to shake my hand, to embrace me, thanking me for explaining the Trinity in a way they understood. And they told the people that we have a guest of another religion, but it should not be another religion because they believe in one God! So that is an example of how I communicate with the Muslims. I do not take a confrontational approach, but one of friendship and dialogue.

The members of the Indonesian Church vary. A few of them are rich people—some are educated, many are not. Many are poor.

—How do you arrange the liturgical life of the parishes?

—In the past, when I started the mission in Solo, we had Liturgy every day, early in the morning; but eventually it turned out to be impractical for people who have to work. Especially now in the big cities, where traffic jams are so horrendous—as in Jakarta—and not many people have their own cars, it is impossible to have a regular liturgical life. It is impossible to have weekday worship. Usually we have only Saturday Vespers and Sunday Liturgy. Confession is heard either on Saturday or on Sunday during the Liturgy. We emphasize long preaching, because the people need teaching more than anything else. It is my belief that the Bible should be an open book for the people, so that’s why I conduct a lot Bible study. Sometimes it’s topical Bible study, according to dogma, or book study, like the Letter to the Romans, verse-by-verse, word-by-word. I want my people to be Biblically literate. If not, Indonesian people can be very superstitious. If there is no Biblical information, I’m afraid they’ll understand our ceremonies superstitiously. That is why Liturgy and Bible teaching go side-by-side in the Indonesian Church. I insist that they bring their Bibles to church, because when I preach I cite directly from the Bible, asking the people to open their Bibles to read the verses that I mention. Then they not only listen, but also participate in the preaching. I also allow them to interrupt, even ask questions during the preaching. In that way the worship will be lively. And we do not have a choir—everybody sings. So we have liturgical congregational singing. Everybody participates.

—How often do the people confess and commune?

—Every time they want to take Communion they have to confess. This may be in another place if they feel that they have a great sin they have to confess, because the priest usually does not have enough time during the service. But the norm is that they confess every time they want to take Communion.

—How do you keep the fasts?

—The diet of Indonesian people is very different from the European or Russian diet. Cheese is not part of our diet. People in the villages usually don’t eat meat very often, and olive oil is not a delicacy for us, so we do not use it. So, if we follow the fast as it is done in Greece, Russia, or America, our people would never fast because their food is always fasting food. But fortunately, I was on Mt. Athos and I saw some monks that sometimes do not eat until the ninth hour or just before Vespers. I got inspiration from that practice, and I told my people that in order for them to feel the fast they should eat vegetarian food, and eat only at the time of the ninth hour or before Vespers. So that’s what we do. We fast on Friday and Wednesday, just like any other Orthodox.

—What problems do the Orthodox people in Indonesia face?

—The problem is economic. It is difficult to get people to convert, but easy to lose them. So far we do not have many people; many young women want to get married and we don’t have many young men in the Church and vice versa, so they find people from outside the faith—either from non-Orthodox Christianity, or some other religion. We lose people through that kind of situation. We also lose people because of the economic situation. They may work in a non-Orthodox institution, and this institution is willing to accept them if they leave the Orthodox Church and join that church. Sometimes there are very unethical denominations. They provide buses and stop in places where there are Orthodox people, or any other Christians, to bring them to that church. In that way we also lose people. The Muslims are also very aggressive now. They also try to convert Christians to Islam. Sometimes we lose people back to Islam. Some churches provide scholarships to the children—especially Pentecostals—with the promise that they will bring their parents to the church. One time we lost a family because of that—because of the money. It’s very painful for us, because we convert people with much difficulty and we lose them through Islamic influence.

—Are there any Indonesian saints?

—No, we do not yet have any saints. Well, there is Father Gregory who was murdered. We do not know who killed him, but we believe it was a Muslim, because when I called his phone, a woman answered and said “As-salamu alaikum.” I consider him to be a martyr, personally. People may not believe that, it’s not officially recognized, but I believe he was killed in the line of duty and that he is a martyr.

—What is the potential for the growth of Orthodoxy in Indonesia?

—Orthodoxy has great potential to grow in Indonesia, if we have enough available information about the faith. Therefore we need more books about Orthodoxy in the Indonesian language. I have written books on various topics, published in the past, but because of a lack of money now they are just sitting as files on my computer. Since I know the mind of the people I can explain things to them in a way they can understand. Just as Byzantine Orthodoxy became Russian Orthodoxy, in the future Russian Orthodoxy will become Indonesian Orthodoxy. We want to be just as the Russians, but as Indonesians. We cannot be other than what we are. And I said before, we hope to build a seminary, monastery, and more churches.

—What is needed to develop the preaching in Indonesia?

—Education, availability of books, a website… In the future we need a local bishop in Indonesia for the ordination of priests, so that we will not have to wait for a foreign bishop to come to us from far away. Also, there is a law that foreign nationals cannot be religious leaders of any kind, and thus we call ourselves the Indonesian Orthodox Church—not the Greek, or Russian, even though we are under the Russian Church.

—You spent time on Mt. Athos at Simenopetra Monastery, and you knew Elder Emelianos. What did you learn from him that you have kept with you in your personal life and in your work with the mission?

—Many things, many things. I always remember his word: ipomoni (υπομον?). “Be patient.” I will never forget that he would always say ipomoni, “be patient.” Learning to be patient is hard for me because I’m a person who is on the go all the time. I’m a doer, and to be patient is not one of my traits, but I have to learn. And that is what I learned from Father Emelianos. Also his openness—he was very open with me in spite of my being the first Indonesian ever to step foot on Mt. Athos. He treated me just like a son, even though at that time I did not speak Greek well—but I was able to understand what he said. Of course I had Fr. Makarios from France, who was helping me translate what he said. So the word that always I remember from Father Amelianos is ipomoni.

—Concerning how people live in Indonesia: What is the difference in worldview or lifestyle between Muslims and Christians?

—I think it is in the way they look, the way they behave. You can tell by the way they talk, the type of language, their choice of words. They differ. And there is separation even in how they clothe themselves. In terms of their general attitude—after all we are Indonesian, so it’s difficult to say.