Catholic school in Indonesia seeks recognition for its role in Obama's life

President Obama will be met with enthusiasm and some criticism when he travels later this year to a country where he spent time in his youth.
By Andrew Higgins
Friday, April 9, 2010

JAKARTA, INDONESIA -- Long shadowed in the United States by dark rumors that he attended a radical Muslim school while growing up in Indonesia, President Obama faces pressure from some old school pals to finally come clean about the past.

"The truth is clear," said Indra Madewa, the president's childhood neighbor, who played daily with the boy he knew as "Barry," a chubby American from Hawaii. "We know he's busy, but we just want to refresh his memory."

What Madewa and other old friends want to remind Obama about won't bring any joy to those in the United States who contend that the president is a closet Muslim. The truth, they say, is this: While Obama went to Besuki, a mostly Muslim school, for less than a year, he spent most of his four years in Indonesia studying at Santo Fransiskus Asisi, a Roman Catholic school run at the time by a stern Dutch priest. Classes began and ended each day with Christian prayers.

That Obama went to a Catholic elementary school for a time while living in Jakarta from 1967 to 1971 has long been known. But this part of the presidential biography has largely been reduced to a footnote, thanks to the energetic self-promotion of its rival, Besuki, which is in one of Jakarta's wealthiest districts.

When the White House made plans for a March presidential trip to the world's most populous Muslim nation, it scheduled a visit to Besuki, not to the "wrong side of the tracks" Catholic school where Obama spent far more time. "They are very good at marketing" their presidential ties, said Yustina Amirah, principal of the Asisi school.

Despite Obama's much deeper ties to Asisi, Besuki has garnered most of the attention -- not all of it welcome.

During the 2008 campaign, some critics repeatedly asserted that Obama had attended an "Islamic madrassa" as a boy in Indonesia. Since the Catholic school seemed an unlikely place to chant the Koran, the spotlight fell on Besuki, which at least had a mosque.

Appalled by suggestions that their alma mater was a hotbed of hard-line Islam, Besuki's well-connected and often wealthy alumni rallied to set the record straight -- and claim Obama as their own. In the process, Santo Fransiskus Asisi (or Saint Francis of Assisi) mostly got written out of the script.

When Obama won the election, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Cameron R. Hume, visited Besuki, not Asisi. When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Indonesia in February 2009, Indonesian officials and the U.S. Embassy arranged for pupils from Besuki to greet her at the Jakarta airport. Besuki's place on the presidential itinerary for the March trip, which has been postponed until later this year, was the latest slight for Asisi.

Fed up with being airbrushed out of the picture, the Catholic school finally decided to push back. "I said, 'This is not fair: We have to do something,' " recalled Boy Garibaldi Thohir, an Asisi graduate who, in addition to running an energy company, is spearheading a drive to reclaim Obama for St. Francis.

"Facts are facts," he said. "We want to explain to the world a fact of life: Obama went to Asisi for nearly three years."

Late last year, Thohir, who didn't know Obama, teamed with Madewa and others who did in an effort to put Asisi back on the map. They sent letters to the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy and produced a video celebrating Obama's ties to Asisi. The school recently put up a big board outside his first-grade classroom; it features inspirational quotes from Obama and Saint Francis.

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