"The Birth of the Orthodox Church in Indonesia"


by Archimandrite Daniel B. D. Byantoro



Indonesia, located in South East Asia, is the largest Muslim country in the world with almost a 200 million population. It consists of more than 13,677 large and small islands, with main large islands as Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Irian Jaya, etc. It has an ancient history of kingdoms and empires such as Hindu, Mataram Kingdom, Buddhist Sriwijaya Kingdom, Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire, and since the 15th century Islamic Kingdoms of Java, Sumatra etc. It was occupied by the Dutch in the 16th century who brought Western Christianity to the land. It was then occupied by the Japanese, and finally gained its independence on August 17, 1945, and became the modern Republic of Indonesia.

Due to the nature of the land and its history, Indonesia has many ethnic and religious groups. During the Sriwijaya-Majapahit periods, eastern Christians of the Antiochian Syrian tradition had landed on the land, and were later followed by the Non-Chalcedonians. However, they disappeared soon from the Indonesian landscape. Since its independence, the modern state of Indonesia recognizes only those religions which existed and took active parts during the struggle for independence. The State Department of Religions recognizes Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. All new religions that came later have to be categorized under these five recognized religions or be considered illegal.


The Beginning

The history of the Orthodox Church in Indonesia, was started by the conversion of a young man of Muslim background. He had been searching for a deeper certainty of God. He debated with his former school teacher who had converted to Christianity, and was able to win the debate, and thus was not convinced of the truth of the Gospel. By God's grace, through his reading of the Qur'an 3:45 which says that Christ is "Word from God", he realized the Oneness of Christ and God, just as the Oneness of the "Speech" and the "Speaker". He converted to Protestant Christianity, and was influenced very strongly by Charismatic Movements in the middle of the 1970's. Later he missed the liturgical life of Islam, especially the fasting, certain type of prayer, etc., and was bewildered by the plethora of denominations and sects with the differing and opposing traditions. He set his heart for a further search, that of the ancient Christianity of the East, since he believed Christianity was born in the same Middle Eastern milieu as was Islam. In 1978, he went to study in the Protestant Theological Seminary, the Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission (ACTS) in Seoul, Korea, without finding the answer to his quest. In the start of 1982 he found a book: "The Orthodox Church" by Timothy (Kallistos) Ware in a book shop in Seoul. The book helped him to see the Church for which he had been looking. Finally, on September 6th, 1983, he converted to Orthodoxy with the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (the late Patriarch Demetrios), and of His Eminence Metropolitan Dionysios of New Zealand, and was chrismated by the hand of the (then) Archimandrite Sotirios Trambas (who is Bishop of Zelon, stationed in Korea).

Having graduated from Korea, he went to Greece, where he stayed on Mount Athos. This was the time in which he began to translate liturgical books into Indonesian, and struggled with the terminology suitable to express the faith. Also during this time he wrote books on Orthodoxy and kept continuous correspondence with people in Indonesia. By the end of 1984 he went to study in the U.S., at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston. Having finished his study in Boston and in two other schools in the U.S., he was ordained by His Grace Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh to the Diaconate in the Holy Cross Church (pastured by Fr. John Chakos), and to the priesthood in the St. Paul Orthodox Church in Cleveland, Ohio, (pastured by Fr. James Symeonides). The young man we are talking about is now known as Fr. Daniel Bambang Dwi Byantoro, the author of this article. The result of his correspondence to Indonesia was the conversion of four young men who also joined him in the States and have now also become priests in Indonesia.


The Mission in Indonesia started

On June 8th 1988, Fr. Daniel left the States for Indonesia. First, he went to his hometown of Mojokerto, East Java. All the translation works he wrote during his stay on Greece and America were brought home. In Mojokerto he started to convert the family members, and teaching them how to make prosphora, and the vestments from the local batik material. From Mojokerto he moved to Solo (Central Java) where a lot of his former charismatic friends were located. He started holding Bible study classes, out of which several mission activities to the villages were started. The first convert to the Orthodox faith was a Muslim young man: Muhhamed Sugi Bassari, who was baptized by the name of Photios, on April 1989.

In order to make the effort legal, a foundations was formed by the name of "Yayasan Dharma Tuhu" ("The Straight Doctrine Foundation"), and then, due to the objection of many of its Hindu sounding name (i.e. "Dharma"), it was changed into "Yayasan Orthodox Injili Indonesia" ("The Indonesian Orthodox Evangelistic Foundation"). Through this legal notarized foundation, an office was opened, with two workers, using the pavilion of Fr. Daniel's rented house in the village of Baturan, and then after some months moved to a rented room of a small hotel "Hotel Kaloka" in the middle of the city. For two years, Fr. Daniel did not know in whose authority he was under, since he thought that the Diocese of Pittsburgh was responsible for this undertaking, and much help came from the States during all these beginnings, both from the OCMC and from personal friends, Orthodox and Non-Orthodox.

During these times, Fr. Daniel made an effort to make Orthodoxy incarnate itself within the local culture. Besides using the local language, it also used the local culture, such as: sitting on the floor for worship, all the women wearing veils, all shoes to be taken off upon entering the Church, using the traditional coned rice for commemorating the dead instead of wheat kolyva etc. The Eastern Church in Indonesia had become really eastern in its cultural expression. Then a rented house in a slum area was found, where offices and classes took place. It had eleven workers. During this time, small theological classes with the view that they would become an embryo of the seminary, were conducted, but they did not last long, due to financial strains. A small house near the office was made into a church. Through his several visits to the States during these times, Fr. Daniel was able to purchase part of this land, and later Bishop Sotirios helped to purchase the house which was used for the church. During these times, a great difficulty arose within the mission, due to some intrigues and quarrels, and slanders were made against Fr. Daniel. It was the hardest time for Fr. Daniel. He maintained regular communication with His Eminence Archbishop Dionysios. Several times he wish to quit from the whole enterprise, but a new strength came out of each situation, so that he could continue to lead the mission.

The Church continuously grew. In 1991, the Orthodox Church was legally recognized after many difficult struggles, and was put under the care of the Protestant section of the State Department of Religion. At this time the mission already had Fr. Yohannes to minister in Mojokerto, East Java, whose church-building project given through the donation of Mr. Lestenkoff from the States was halted due to the protest of the Muslims, and the unfinished building became a ruin. Fr. Lazarus who started the church in Chilapap could not obtain a building permit also due to the Muslim objection. Similarly, Deacon (now Father) Methodios, started the Church in the village of Grasak, where a church building was donated in 1990 by His Eminence Metropolitan Dionysios but was not due to be used due to the protest of the Muslims. Through another visit to the USA, Fr. Daniel was able to collect some money to build a permanent church-building. The money was not enough, but through the help of Bishop Soterios, a donation was given from Greece, and with many difficulties, a building permit was obtained to erect a church building at last on September 10th, 1996, and the mission was able to finish it and use it until now.


Further Development

The results of the former intrigues did not subside that easily, but in 1994, a clergy meeting was held, and a covenant was made that all the clergy would unite their minds and efforts, and promised not to be carried away easily by any slanders. Since then the Church has been at peace, and no more quarrels nor misunderstandings exist among the clergy in Indonesia. During all those years from time to time the Divine Liturgy was conducted in the Greek Consulate in Jakarta. Later in 1995, a Protestant pastor became interested in Orthodoxy. Not long after he converted to Orthodoxy, a quarrel broke out over certain points of doctrine and ethos of the Church. He left the Church for the Non-Chalcedonian tradition. But a mass baptism was conducted in Jakarta, and then Fr. Daniel had to face the man, and finally a settlement was reached. The people who were baptized by Fr. Daniel now became members of the "Aghia Epiphania" parish in Jakarta. Since then Fr. Daniel has had to move to Jakarta, and once a month be in Solo where the church is under the care of Fr. Alexios, but still overseen by Fr. Daniel.

Meanwhile, in Surabaya, a group of people were interested in Orthodoxy, and on October 30th, 1997, Fr. Daniel gave a seminar there. In Jakarta, a similar seminar has been prepared for November 21st. On October 12th, 1997, a 2000 sq. meter lot was donated to the Church in Jakarta, and an Orthodox Christian Center is going to be built on it. Now the Church in the village of Grasak is going to begin the process of obtaining a permit, since the recent death of the former village chief. In Jakarta, Fr. Daniel does a lot of biblical teaching every Sunday afternoon at 1pm and 6pm. Arabic and Hebrew are being taught by Fr. Daniel for the sake of contextualization to the Muslims. The Liturgy in Jakarta is conducted in the house of one of the parishioners, Mr. Roy Martin, a famous Indonesian film star who converted to Orthodoxy with his wife.

During his visit to Hong Kong in the month of September 1996, His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomeos I, along with the Holy and Great Synod of Constantinople, founded the new Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia, with His Eminence Metropolitan Nikitas as its first Metropolitan. Automatically, Indonesia came under the care of the new Archdiocese. His Eminence visited Indonesia, from July 29th to August 5th, 1997. The response of the people was very enthusiastic. He gave a lot of support and direction as to how the Church had to proceed. His Eminence also founded a new office, the Orthodox Center, with Mr. Matthew Budiharjo as its director. This organization will make a national retreat for the year of 1998, as well as develop and promote other programs. The translation work is continuing, and besides books on Orthodoxy, apologetic works for the Muslim people to understand are also being written.

With the recent burning of churches in Indonesia, difficulties in doing mission have been escalating, but the Holy Spirit is still working so that the work of the mission will not be halted. We don't know what future holds for us, but we believe that the Lord will not allow that which he has created in Indonesia to be destroyed by any evil power. The Church will grow, and the mission will proceed. To God will be the glory. Amen.