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1 Août 2008

INDONESIA 'School of Peace' In Aceh Cultivates Friendship, Peace In Poor Children

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BOGOR, Indonesia (UCAN) --  A canvas tent near a bus station in Banda Aceh serves as a "School of Peace" where six young Catholics lead 15 Muslim children aged 6-12 in values-oriented activities.

The children, all from poor families, bring mats with them to sit on during the weekly classes in the 5-by-5-meter tent.

Local members of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic lay community, erected the "school" in February 2006 and run the classes from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. each Saturday.

"During these two hours, we teach the children the meaning of peace, and also how to count and sing," Maria, the school's coordinator, told UCA News on July 24 via telephone.

She explained the school is not focused on academics. Rather, "the main goal is to help the children make friends, experience togetherness and respect one another."

Maria, 26, recalled that Sant'Egidio members sought out the children, who live in huts around Banda Aceh, capital of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province, where Muslims form more than 95 percent of the population. She said local Catholics support the school.

Father Sebastianus Eka, a "spiritual friend" of the local community, confirmed the goal is for the children "to get to know each other and to build friendships through the school."

The priest, assistant pastor of Most Blessed Heart of Jesus Church in Banda Aceh, spoke with UCA News on July 12, the last day of a three-day national meeting of Sant'Egidio spiritual friends. Seven bishops, 40 priests and 13 nuns attended the meeting in Bogor, about 45 kilometers south of Jakarta, to mark the community's 40th anniversary.

During the meeting, Coadjutor Bishop Ambrogio Spreafico of Frosinone-Veroli-Ferentino, Italy, worldwide spiritual director for Sant'Egidio, talked about the community's spirituality. Participants also shared and reflected on their work experience, and discussed working with poor people and spiritual joy. The meeting's theme was His Boundless Love.

The Sant'Egidio community began in Rome in 1968 and is known for its service to the poor and its promotion of ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, peace and human rights. The Church-recognized movement now has more than 50,000 members in more than 70 countries including Indonesia, where it has 300 members in 15 communities.

According to Father Eka, the School of Peace in Aceh instills solidarity in the children. For example, he said, it encourages them to visit friends who are sick and help friends in need, such as by sharing school supplies. The priest added that during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast daily from dawn to dusk, the school offers the children evening fast-breaking meals.

Father Eka noted that local Muslims welcome the school because they understand it does not introduce religious elements.

"The Sant'Egidio community is not only for Catholics but for all people. We do philanthropic services and do not expect anything from those we help," he explained. The school's name, he added, was chosen to emphasize the community's efforts to promote peace.

The Sant'Egidio community in Indonesia also runs a School of Peace in Jakarta, which holds classes every Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. in a Catholic school's compound.

There, according to Eveline Winarko, a member of the Jakarta community, more than 10 young Catholics teach 150 poor children aged 5-12 the value of friendship through activities such as playing games and singing.

"We give them our hands and embrace them tightly so that they may feel love. We want them to believe they are loved and respected," she said. As in Aceh, the school also holds fast-breaking meals during Ramadan for the Muslim children.

Additionally, Winarko said, the Jakarta school organizes a picnic once a year to an amusement park for all the children -- Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims and Protestants. "The School of Peace," she asserted, "is the arm of Jesus who loves children."

Besides Banda Aceh and Jakarta, Sant'Egidio communities exist in Atambua, Denpasar, Duri, Kefamenanu, Kupang, Maumere, Medan, Nias, Padang, Pekan Baru, Pontianak, Semarang and Yogyakarta.

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