Jakarta (ANTARA) - The Indonesian government is continuing efforts to free New Zealander pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens, who has been held hostage by an armed separatist group in Papua since February 7, 2023.

Mehrtens, a pilot from Susi Air, was abducted by the group, led by Egianus Kogoya, shortly after landing in Paro, Nduga district, Papua Pegunungan province.

After taking over as Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs less than a month ago, Hadi Tjahjanto has moved swiftly to seek ways to free the pilot.

On February 21, 2024, one week after his induction as minister, Tjahjanto held a discussion with three leaders from Nduga.

In Jakarta on February 28, Tjahjanto outlined a plan for freeing Mehrtens by using the church approach. The approach has been chosen considering that the majority of people in Papua are Christians and Catholics.

Also, it is believed that the government will be able to approach the hostage-takers if it uses this approach. However, the minister has not provided further details regarding the approach.

Several parties have voiced their support for the church approach. They include Tjahjanto's predecessor, Mahfud MD.

Mahfud has expressed support for all government efforts to save human lives, such as Mehrtens', by using a church approach.

The church approach is expected to be effective in Papua. Therefore, he supports the measurable steps that will be taken by the government, especially Tjahjanto.

Abdul Mu'ti, general secretary of the central board of one of Indonesia's largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah, has also expressed support for the church approach.

A peaceful approach that does not prioritize military force is expected to be acceptable to the Papuan people, so the church approach is considered appropriate.

The method is also expected to save the pilot and prevent victims in Papua.

Executive secretary for justice and peace of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference (KWI), Pastor Marthen Jenarut, said that Mehrtens' case is a cause for concern for everyone. To be taken hostage is considered an act that limits one's right to live.

Therefore, in the context of freeing Mehrtens, churches have consistently encouraged dialogues that are full of openness and humility, and advised against repressive methods that will not resolve the root problem.

Thus, churches are expected to be able to assist in the pilot's release. Further, the church approach is often applied in the context of love and respect for the dignity of all parties involved in a case.

According to an international relations observer at Padjadjaran University, Arfin Sudirman, the Indonesian government must set a realistic deadline for Mehrtens' release.

It also must refrain from rushing into taking a repressive approach, which would pose a high risk to the safety of the pilot.

The government must also be careful in its actions considering how information flows very quickly, and then there's the issue of information distortion on social media, which could affect Indonesia's image in the eyes of the world.

The church approach, which is a religion-based approach, can be taken as an alternative to a repressive approach to free the hostage.

A religion-based approach has been used in some cases in conflict-riddled areas, including when Sunni Islam figures sought the release of Christian peace activists who were kidnapped during the conflict in Iraq in 2005, and when Pope Francis called for the release of nuns held hostage by an armed group in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

In the context of Indonesia's relations with New Zealand, Sudirman said that the government's efforts to use a church approach are a form of maintaining good relations.

The government is said to be prioritizing the safety of Mehrtens as an individual who needs to be protected in order to maintain good relations with New Zealand and to show the professionalism of the government and security forces in the operation to free the pilot.

There is also an agreement between the governments of both countries on prioritizing a persuasive approach rather than a repressive one in efforts to free Mehrtens.

To this end, both countries must cooperate to free the pilot without the political interests of any parties coming into play.

Persuasive approach

In late February this year, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin met with New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to discuss bilateral relations.

After the meeting, Amin said that Prime Minister Luxon agreed to the Indonesian government's decision to use a persuasive approach to free Mehrtens.

He added that the government is making persuasive efforts to avoid untoward incidents.

Meanwhile, Luxon agreed that the approach must be persuasive because it is related to a sensitive issue.

The Vice President highlighted that the Indonesian government is continuing to apply a persuasive approach by involving community and church leaders.

This was also communicated by Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi to New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters in a telephone call.

Now, hope must remain high while awaiting positive results from the efforts carried out by the government to free Mehrtens.

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Translator: Rio Feisal, Raka Adji
Editor: Azis Kurmala
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