AS you land at Sentani airport on the north-west coast of the island of New Guinea, you are immediately struck by the stark beauty of the Cyclops Mountain Range close by.
This steep, mist-circled, thickly forested rock dominates the horizon.
It was named by the French navigator, Louis de Bougainville when he saw it from his ship as it travelled along the north coast of New Guinea in 1768.
De Bougainville did not set foot on this part of the large island just to Australia’s north; so, the incredible beauty of the land and the fascinating culture of the people who inhabit it remained a mystery to him.
The western half of New Guinea is generally known to its indigenous people as West Papua or the Land of Papua.
It was a Dutch colony from the 19th Century until 1962 when the Netherlands agreed to hand the territory over to the Republic of Indonesia.
The Indonesian takeover began decades of violent repression and isolation, which ensured that, liked de Bougainville, few Australians and foreigners generally have set foot on the beautiful and mysterious land of West Papua in recent decades.
Two Brisbane Catholics are an exception.
Carole Powell, a nurse from Morayfield, and executive officer of Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission Peter Arndt joined a small group of Christians from Australia, the United States and the Pacific on a peace pilgrimage to West Papua in January and February.
Carole and Peter agreed that their faith and their lives had been transformed irrevocably by their encounters with this beautiful land and the people who live in close relationship with it.
The main purpose of the pilgrimage was to attend the official celebrations of the 160th anniversary of the Coming of the Gospel, which was held on Mansinam Island on February 5.
Indigenous Papuans are fervent Christians and the day is a public holiday throughout the land.
It marks the arrival of two Protestant missionaries, Ottow and Geissler, who established a mission at Doreh Bay in 1855.
More than 15,000 people attended the elaborate four-hour spectacular of music, hymn-singing, dance, drama and prayer.
Church and community leaders from across West Papua and from around the world attended the celebrations and delivered messages of good wishes and hope to the assembled throng of Papuans.
Mr Arndt was among those to offer greetings.
“To be with such a large crowd of Christians and to publicly share our love and commitment to Christ was a powerful experience,” Mr Arndt said.
“One of the major Protestant churches organised the celebration and, even though Papuan Catholics recognise the day, their representatives are not usually invited to the celebration.
“One of my Papuan Catholic friends told me later that she was so proud to hear a fellow Catholic speak at the celebration which was just as important to her as to her Protestant counterparts.
“The whole experience demonstrated to me the importance of Christianity to the Papuan people, but I couldn’t help wondering whether this celebration would lose its significance in years to come because the Government policy of encouraging migration of citizens from other parts of Indonesia to Papua has changed the demographics of West Papua so radically.”
Mr Arndt said Australian researcher Dr James Elmslie had done demographic work which showed that in the 1960s, indigenous Papuans made up 96 per cent of the population, but this had fallen to about 48 per cent and he estimated the proportion would fall sharply to about 15 per cent by 2030.
Apart from their declining numbers, indigenous Papuans are also increasingly marginalised in terms of their socio-economic status.
Ms Powell said Papuans suffered great disadvantage across all socio-economic indicators such as employment levels, health standards and educational attainment.
“We went to many church services and met with many Church representatives and we often heard about limited educational and employment opportunities, and concerns about the ready access of young people to alcohol and pornography,” she said.
“As a nurse, I was particularly concerned at the growing HIV/AIDS problem in Papua and the poor standards of community health facilities.
“But along with the expressions of concern about these problems, we heard in church after church a consistent insistence by indigenous Papuans that they had to take charge of addressing the problems themselves.”
In addition to these pressing social concerns, Papuans live with deep-seated anxiety and fear.
These feelings are created and sustained by a combination of heavy-handed military repression and policies, which seek to quarantine West Papua from the gaze of the international community.
Despite more than 50 years of Indonesian occupation, Papuan resistance remains strong.
An armed resistance, estimated to be about 1000 strong, has been active, mainly in the highlands, but they are dwarfed by the number of Papuans working non-violently in a range of groups to give Papuan people a say in their own future.
“The Indonesian authorities do not want outsiders to know what security forces are doing to quell free political expression in West Papua; so, it was no surprise to us that we were followed and photographed by intelligence officers from the moment we arrived on Papuan soil,” Ms Powell said.
Ms Powell, who has participated in Christian accompaniment programs in Palestine run by Christian Peacemaker Teams, saw many similarities between the methods used by the Israeli Army in Palestine and by Indonesian security forces in West Papua to harass and intimidate those seeking to resist occupation of their traditional lands.
“The police and the army are everywhere and they employ merciless brutality on the people to intimidate them and to keep them in a constant state of fear,” Ms Powell said.
Mr Arndt said: “Despite the efforts of authorities to isolate Papuans from the world, locals have become adept at getting messages out about a sickening litany of beatings, torture and killings.”
The beatings and killings are not limited to political activists.
“Last December, in the district of Paniai, four young people, who joined a large community protest about a soldier’s assault of a 12-year-old child, were shot dead by security forces,” Mr Arndt said. “There were promises of an investigation, but, over two months later, there are no charges, no convictions and no justice for the young people killed or for their families.
“The army and police act in this way with total impunity.”
Ms Powell said the fear this long-running police state induced “generates much distrust and animosity within families and communities”.
“We saw family and community divisions flare up and they are directly related to the fear of intervention by security forces,” she said.
“Authorities also deepen fear and distrust by encouraging community members to act as informants.
“During a visit to one community, some of us were subjected to two hours of interrogation by an immigration official. This happened after an informant reported a meeting we had with a number of survivors of military brutality.
“We were cleared to continue our pilgrimage, but we were deeply disturbed by the on-going harassment of our Papuan friends.”
The highlight of the pilgrimage for both Carole and Peter was their stay in a highland village community.
To get there, they had to endure an arduous eight-hour trip on rocky roads and across many narrow and dilapidated bridges.
At its end, the pilgrims entered another world.
Far from the heat and humidity of the big cities of Papua and surrounded by the exquisite beauty of misty, blue mountains and lush, green valleys, the pilgrims were treated to the warmth and generosity of a village community which lived an intriguing mix of the old with the new.
“We were honoured guests of the village and we stayed in a house built by the grandfather of one of our hosts,” Mr Arndt said.
“Late at night, locals dressed in traditional penis gourds and grass skirts greeted us in a fern-carpeted tent with a warm, smoky fire at its heart.
“They were not only there to welcome us but also to ensure our safety during our stay.
“While villagers in traditional dress sat around the open fire, they sported modern mobile phones which they used to play both traditional music and modern reggae, a favourite among Papuans.
“An ablutions block had been specially constructed to make us pampered Westerners more comfortable.
“They spoke much about their concerns and their hopes, but they also made it clear that God was at the centre of their lives.
“The villagers are Catholics and it was an immensely great privilege for us to join them and others from surrounding villages for Mass at the local Catholic church on Sunday.
“While the words of the Mass were spoken in Indonesian, the scripture readings were read in the local language and the priest’s homily was also translated.
“The traditional culture of the people was also woven into the ritual fabric of the Eucharist with traditional singing and an offertory procession of women in traditional costumes bearing not only the bread and wine, but all the fruits of the earth which sustained the people each day.
“Our Protestant pilgrim friends were also deeply moved by the experience.
“That night, two pigs and six chickens were killed and cooked in the earth on stones which had probably been used for that purpose for many years.
“Everything was done prayerfully and with great ritual and everyone in the community, young and old, shared in the responsibility of preparing the feast. I came away from that experience with my faith deeply transformed.”
Mr Arndt said he “could sense how close to God the people were and how much they loved Jesus”.
“I could sense the powerful presence of Jesus in them, the crucified Jesus who shares their daily sufferings personally and intimately and the risen Lord who offers us the deep peace which comes from placing our trust in God’s love,” he said.
“Their love of God and faith in Jesus evangelised us.
“I have come away from this experience with a deeper and richer understanding of how my faith and my commitment to justice and peace go hand in hand.
“They taught me that a Christian commitment to justice must be grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus.
“We met Jesus in our encounter with the villagers and their daily struggles and, through them, He opened our eyes to how we can enter into deeper union with God.”
Carole and Peter wanted to share their experience with other Catholics and are committed to offering talks and presentations to parishes, schools, agencies, groups and organisations to raise awareness about West Papua and to encourage support for its people.
“The people of West Papua have much to offer us and we invite others to join us in walking in solidarity with them,” Ms Powell said.
“It will change your life forever, just like it did for us.”