Agats diocese covers an area of 37,000 square kilometers that comprises the whole of Asmat district and a small part of Mappi district, both in Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province.
Agats town, the base of the diocese and capital of Asmat district, lies 3,400 kilometers east of Jakarta.
Swamp and forest cover the diocesan territory. The major ethnic group is the Asmat, 59,000 of whom live in the area, scattered in 100 villages. The tribe was isolated from the outside world and almost untouched by civilization until the 1940s, when the local people urged the Dutch colonial rulers to open up their region.
Following the establishment of Jayapura prefecture in 1952, two Sacred Heart missionary priests visited Asmat. They came from Mimika, a coastal are now part of Timika diocese, where Catholicism had been spreading since its establishment more than two decades earlier. They opened several missionary settlements and placed catechists from Mimika in charge of them. The priests took up residence in Agats in 1953, and learned the local language and culture.
In 1956, Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart sisters opened a dormitory and clinic in Atsy subdistrict. They worked there until 1966. Other women's congregations came later -- the Ursulines, Mary the Mediatrix sisters and Daughters of St. Angela.
In 1958 several Crosier priests and brothers came from the United States to work in Asmat. In 1961, the Crosier missioners took charge of the whole Asmat-speaking region.
The Vatican established Agats diocese on Nov. 23, 1969, and appointed american Father Alphonse Sowada, one of the Crosier priests who had arrived in 1961, as the first Bishop of Agats. Franciscan Bishop Murwito succeeded him in September 2002.
Asmat tribal people are known for their woodcarvings and other traditional art. "For an Asmat, a wood carving is not just a piece of art but is related to the souls of our ancestors, nature and God," Rufus Sisomor Sati, a member of the tribe, told UCA News during the 2006 Festival of Asmat Arts and Culture. "Asmat people are nothing without their culture and art."
Bishop Sowada built the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in 1973 to help preserve and develop local culture, . It houses an art collection featuring carved poles representing Asmat ancestors, other carvings and clothing made for spirits, as well as stuffed birds and crocodiles. Agats diocese began sponsoring occasional cultural festivals in 1981. The diocesan pastoral conference made them an annual event beginning in 2001, the year before Bishop Murwito took charge of the diocese from Bishop Sowada.
Bishop Sowada, who was instrumental in evangelizing the Asmat, retired as shepherd of the diocese in 2001, but he still ministers to the Asmat people and promotes their culture.
Evangelization of peoples like the Asmat "does not mean insisting that all cultural practices end," the bishop stated in a 2001 interviewed with the St. Cloud Visitor, a US periodical. "The result is 'Catholicism with an Irian bent' ... and helping them realize that God and his love are already present in their midst" he said. (Irian is the Indonesian name for Papua.) The Asmat might have been associated historically with headhunting and cannibalism, but Bishop Sowada insisted they are very "open and friendly"
His successor, Bishop Murwito, who is Javanese, told UCA News in 2006 that Asmat sculpture reflects their identity, philosophy, development and beliefs, as well as their relations with other people, creatures and the environment. "Their carving is art that reflects fundamental beliefs passed down from generation to generation," he explained. The sculptures show respect for God, nature and ancestors, which makes their art beautiful, he added.