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

By Andrew Higgins
Friday, April 9, 2010; A01

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.

Karen Brooks, an old friend of Thohir's who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now works as a consultant, offered tips to the Asisi camp on how to pitch the school's appeal.

On a recent trip to Jakarta, Brooks said that Asisi deserves recognition as a "microcosm of Indonesian life": a Catholic school with a student body of Christians, Muslims and children of other faiths. Thohir, for example, is a Muslim.

Besuki boosters insist they never intended to steal Asisi's thunder. But, said Besuki's principal, Hasimah, "this school represents Indonesia."

Unlike Asisi, a private institution with a big church, Besuki is run by the state, has a mosque and, though also attended by Christians, it is more in line with the general orientation of a country with more than 200 million Muslims. At assembly on Monday mornings, the principal broadcasts the national anthem and a song of praise to Obama over loudspeakers in Besuki's playground.

The two schools are also divided by class. Besuki, located in the upscale Menteng neighborhood, just a short walk from the grand official residence of the U.S. ambassador, was founded under Dutch colonial rule as a school for the elite. It continued this role after independence, educating the children of officials, businessmen, doctors and other well-to-do residents of Menteng.

Asisi is hidden down the windy, narrow streets of the much more downscale Menteng-Dalam neighborhood. Its pupils are not poor; they have to pay modest fees. But, particularly in Obama's day, they have mostly come from less-privileged families than the kids at Besuki.

Obama has kept his distance from Jakarta's uptown-downtown wrangling, but he has dropped a few hints. In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote of a "joyous time" when he "went to local Indonesia schools and ran the streets with children of farmers, servants, tailors, and clerks." Asisi activists have taken this as a veiled endorsement of the Catholic school and its more humble clientele.

"They had shoes. We went barefoot or in sandals," said Madewa, Obama's boyhood neighbor. Since becoming president, Obama has spoken several times of his fond memories of Menteng-Dalam, a clear sign, Asisi activists think, of his affection for their Catholic school.

But this hasn't fazed Besuki backers. Ron Muller, an American who runs Mexican restaurants in Jakarta, formed the "Friends of Obama Foundation" and put up a plaque at the entrance to Besuki hailing the school's links to the president.

Muller, who has never met Obama, last year commissioned a bronze statue of the president as a boy. It was originally put in a Menteng public park but has been relocated to Besuki, after an outcry on Facebook and threats of legal action from critics who complained that only Indonesian heroes deserve such an honor.

Obama moved to Indonesia in 1967 with his mother, American anthropologist Ann Dunham, and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro. They lived in a single-story rented house in Menteng-Dalam.

An old school registry at Asisi records how, under the name "Barry Soetoro," he entered first grade at the start of the school year on Jan. 1, 1968. He was registered as a Muslim, based on his stepfather's faith. All students, no matter what their religion, attended Christian services.

Sometime in the third grade, Obama's mother moved up-market to Menteng. Obama switched schools to Besuki. He returned to the United States less than a year later. Exactly how many months he spent at Besuki is not known; the school's registration records were destroyed years ago by flooding.

While at Besuki, Obama received instruction in Islam. But, recalled Rully Dasaad, a former classmate, Obama horsed around in class and, during readings of the Koran, got "laughed at because of his funny pronunciation." Dasaad later converted to Christianity.

Like many Besuki kids, Dasaad came from privilege. In the 1960s, his family owned one of Jakarta's two Cadillacs. Other well-to-do alumni include the heads of Indonesia's national airline and the national mint, and members of parliament.

Besuki has another asset Asisi can't match: photos of Obama at its school. "They can say what they want, but we have pictures," said Hiramsyah Thaib, head of the Besuki alumni association.

When a Besuki classmate sent several old photos to the White House last year, the president responded with a personal thank-you note. "I enjoyed your photos. It seems like only yesterday I was playing with my classmates in Jakarta," he wrote.

Nurmaria Sarosa, an Obama classmate at Asisi, said the absence of any photographic record of the president's time at the Catholic school has merely boosted its status as a righteous underdog: Only rich kids had cameras in the 1960s.

"Nobody had a camera back then at Asisi," Sarosa said.

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