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Evangelist's sanctuary is a 'house of prayers for all nations'

The cross on Katedral Mesias appears on the skyline well before its colosseum-like structure comes into focus.

The Colosseum-style church built by Dr Stephen Hong, a self-made evangelist.
The Colosseum-style church built by Dr Stephen Hong, a self-made evangelist.

JAKARTA // The cross on Katedral Mesias appears on the skyline well before its colosseum-like structure comes into focus. It towers over the crescent moon and star minaret on a nearby mosque: a potent and potentially provocative symbol in a country with the world's largest number of Muslims. This is the sanctuary of self-made evangelist Dr Stephen Tong and, he said, a template of Indonesia's tolerance for religious diversity.

"So the world can see that Indonesia is not a messy country," he said. "This is a country that is big enough to protect its minorities." But not all of Indonesia's 200 million or so Muslim's agree. A survey made public this week by the Centre for Islamic and Society Studies at Jakarta's Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University found that more than 70 per cent of the nation's religious teachers do not want alternative houses of worship in their neighbourhoods and 87 per cent discourage their students from learning about other religions.

Christians make up about 10 per cent of the country's 235 million people. Their presence is considered offensive to a small but increasingly vocal minority of Muslims who seek to undermine Indonesia's secular constitution. Hundreds of churches have been attacked or forcibly closed in recent years. Police offer little or no resistance and no one has been jailed or prosecuted. If big is better, then perhaps the sheer size of Katedral Mesias will serve as a bulwark against such violence and intimidation.

Dr Tong spent 16 years preaching in hotels and universities before the Indonesian government approved its construction. The congregation has swollen since its opening two months ago. Costing US$27 million (Dh99m) it can house 8,000 people in two chambers and has 20 classrooms for Sunday school. A seminary, art museum and university will eventually be housed in an adjoining tower. Born in China and raised in Indonesia, Dr Tong, 69, developed his own brand of Evangelical Reformed Church, spawning a multinational franchise: Stephen Tong Evangelistic Ministries International. As well as Indonesia, his weekly speaking circuit takes in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. He boasts of having preached to 30 million people over his 51-year career.

Dr Tong's sermons, delivered in the local tongue - Bahasa Indonesian and sometimes Mandarin - often last three hours, interspersed with soaring Gregorian hymns. The United States' historic bank collapses were the subject of last week's homily. His flock, mostly wealthy Chinese Indonesians, sat with rapt attention as he invoked Adam Smith, a moral philosopher and economist, the dangers of greed and the need for spiritual investment.

Dr Tong is proud of the fact that Katedral Mesias was built wholly with donations from his local members. "All the money comes from our congregation; there was no money from foreign organisations," he said. There is speculation that James Riyadi, a billionaire tycoon, donated much of it. The scion of the Lippo Group, with interests in banking, media, construction and hospitals, Mr Riyadi is an increasingly powerful economic player with a zest for evangelical religion. (He is known for blessing journalists before interviews, though on this occasion declined to minister to The National.)

Just a decade ago, after the Asian economic meltdown, ethnic Chinese fled Indonesia as murderous gangs roamed the capital raping, burning and looting. They were targeted because of their traditional economic dominance. The riots forced the resignation of the president, Suharto, who held corruptive sway over the country for three decades. Many of those who returned have grown wealthier from the resources-led recovery. After decades of closeted worship they are also bolder. And despite or perhaps because of a resurgent radical Islamic movement many seek to articulate their Christian identity.

"I would say that maybe among these Protestant evangelical groups there is an overconfidence," said Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest and resident of Indonesia for more than four decades. "They are not really in touch with the general societal situation." Radical Islamic groups "are anti-pluralism, antireligious freedom", said Dr Syaffi'i Anwar, director of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism, based in Jakarta, and one of Indonesia's most respected moderate Muslim intellectuals. "They would consider the establishment of this church as a means of Christianisation in Indonesia, so they must be very careful."

This year, Dr Anwar spent fours days in a hospital after an attack by radical Islamists at a peaceful, multifaith rally. Dr Anwar said he worries that hardline views are becoming more mainstream. In 2005, the Indonesian Ulema's Council, one of the country's highest Islamic authorities reissued a fatwa against liberalism, saying pluralism and secularism are anti-Islamic. Dr Tong conceded he was forced to abandon one potential site for the church because of local hostility to the project. He said an agreement was signed with Muslim leaders before the church's construction. "People from the mosque behind us agreed that we should build this and signed an agreement to respect us."

He has so far refused requests by local government officials to remove the cross. With its large white columns and windowless façade the megachurch is an intimidating structure. Its presence leaves some in the community cold. "Its too close," said Dwi Sasongko, a stall holder at the mosque next door. "People around here don't feel comfortable with it. They didn't even know it was going to be a church."

There are at least three other megachurch developments in and around the capital. In Sentul, about 70km from the city centre, the Bethany Church of Gereja Bethel Indonesia, a Protestant sect, is financing the development of the innocuously titled Sentul Convention Centre, a fortresslike stadium with seating for 12,000. Hendra Hermawan, the centre's general manager, denied suggestions it would be used for services.

"It's not allowed to be used in that way," he said. "But by building this they will be able to build more churches everywhere with the profits." On its website, Christian World News hailed the $30-million development as a "house of prayer for all nations and a centre for transformation here in Indonesia and the entire world". * The National