JAKARTA, Sept 5 — Indonesia's sprinkling of small churches have periodically been raided, burned down or bombed by angry mobs. It would seem to be a good place for Christians to keep a low profile.
Instead, some wealthy Christian leaders in the predominantly Muslim nation have embarked on a bold and possibly provocative strategy: building megachurches as an assertion of their faith.
At least four multimillion-dollar churches that can seat thousands of people — patterned on the evangelical colossi of the US — are nearing completion around Jakarta, the capital, and others are cropping up elsewhere.
The striking edifices are one way Christians — who make up about 8 per cent of Indonesia's population of 230 million — are dealing with what some say is a rise in anti-Christian sentiment in Asia. They are an emblem of how the church here, financed by prominent businesspeople, is determined to make its presence known after a decade of persecution.
During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Indonesia's ethnic Chinese, who make up a large portion of Jakarta's Christians, were targeted in race riots. Denied permits by the government to build places of worship, congregations have met instead behind closed doors in malls and five-star hotels. Today, the government still blocks many requests to construct churches, fearing a backlash from extremist Muslim groups, and mobs still regularly attack churches.
But Christians say the decision to allow the massive churches signals a step forward and a reinforcement of Indonesia's secular constitution.
Indonesia's Religious Affairs Ministry declined to make the official who is qualified to respond on church permits available for an interview. In general, Jakarta prefers not to comment on the sensitive subject of religion.
The government appears to be allowing the megachurches at a time when organised Islamic terrorism has diminished as a threat to the nation.
Terrorists linked to al Qaeda, who bombed a string of Jakarta churches on Christmas Eve in 2000 and carried out the Bali nightclub attacks in 2002, have been greatly weakened by arrests under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and haven't carried out a major assault on Western or Christian targets for three years. The megachurches, which have their own security, may yet offer a target to determined terrorists, but times have changed.
The lull in organised terror has, in turn, emboldened Jakarta's elite churches to put up the gleaming structures. Thanks to Indonesia's booming economy, rich ethnic-Chinese businesspeople can fund the projects.
In Kemayoran, a business district of high-rise offices near the city centre, the Reformed Millennium Cathedral is set to open officially on Sept 20. It will seat 8,000 and house a seminary, a university and a museum of Chinese porcelain.
Preacher Stephen Tong, a 69-year-old Chinese-born Indonesian, founded the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church in 1989 and says it took 16 years to persuade the central government to issue a permit to build the new church. In that time, hundreds of churches have been burned down by hardliners across Indonesia, he estimates.
"I've built a bigger one" than all the destroyed churches combined, says Tong, who used to hold his church's meetings in a hotel. "I want it to be an image that Indonesia still has freedom of religion."
Tong acknowledges persistent problems, and Christians complain that in day-to-day life, Yudhoyono, who faces re-election next year, has generally been slow to defend religious minorities. The police often turn a blind eye to Islamist violence against churches without security in poor parts of Jakarta and rural Indonesia.
In July, hundreds of Christian theology students were driven from their campus in east Jakarta after a group reportedly angered by the singing of hymns, considered an evangelical activity, attacked them with Molotov cocktails and spears, injuring scores of them. Police have taken no action. "We should remain faithful to the constitution," Tong says.
The population of Christians in Asia and the Middle East grew to 350 million in 2005, or 9 per cent, from about 100 million in 1970, or 5 per cent of the total population, according to a 2006 study on Asian Christianity by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Centre.
Many Indian states have passed laws making it harder to change religions. In Malaysia, powerful Islamic courts have increasingly blocked Muslims from converting. China's Communist government has suppressed a number of Pentecostal churches that were winning converts. Buddhists in Myanmar have accused evangelical Protestant movements of undertaking aggressive proselytisation campaigns.
Attacks on Christians are increasingly common in Asia. In the Indian state of Orissa, for instance, at least a dozen Christians have been killed by Hindu mobs following the recent death of a Hindu leader who Christians say was killed by Maoist rebels. Following the attacks, Vatican officials said they were concerned about growing "Christianophobia" in Asia.
Now, churches are starting to push back. A coalition of churches in Malaysia urged voters ahead of the general election in March to choose parties that protect freedom of religion. Christians in South Korea, home to some of the world's largest Protestant megachurches, are exporting their message to places like Cambodia, which is mainly Buddhist. South Korean missionaries are also targeting China, where worshippers may attend only state-sanctioned churches, forcing many more underground.
The megachurches in Indonesia — where local Christians largely refrain from proselytising — are another sign of the pushback. Tong says local-government officials recently asked him to remove a large cross from atop his new church. He refused.
Still, to avoid unwanted conflict, the new megachurches take precautions. Most are built either in commercial districts or in Christian parts of town.
Tong, who also holds services in Mandarin each week in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, has a wide network to draw on. His new church in Jakarta, which cost US$27 million (RM91 million) for the main auditorium alone, was partly funded by James Riady of Indonesia's Lippo Group.. Riady, who paid a huge fine for illegal contributions to former US PresidentBill Clinton's 1996 election campaign, says the megachurch phenomenon is an attempt to redress the balance after years of denying communities the right to build churches.
In Kelapa Gading, a suburb of Jakarta where many residents are Christians, workers are putting the finishing touches on a megachurch that has cost US$8 million to build and will seat 10,000 people and include two indoor waterfalls. Its senior pastor, the Rev. Yacob Nahuway, is from Ambon in eastern Indonesia, where thousands died in Muslim-Christian fighting earlier this decade before a ceasefire was reached. Refugees from Ambon are working at the site.
Construction sometimes goes ahead without a permit. Just off a major toll road in Sentul, a town about 45 minutes outside Jakarta, a stadium-like building owned by the GBI Bethany Church is set to open later this year. Unable to get a permit, the church has to call it a convention centre. Local officials "know the building will be used for a church," says a construction manager who attends the church. "But they close their eyes." — The Wall Street Journal Asia
5 years ago