Gutsy pastor opens megachurch in world’s biggest Muslim nation
Stephen Tong is one gutsy pastor. On Saturday, the head of the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church opened a multimillion dollar megachurch in Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. “This proves that there are no restrictions from the Indonesian government to build religious centres,” the Chinese- Indonesian preacher said. “It gives the world a new impression of Indonesia: it is not a messy country or full of troubles.”
Indonesia has traditionally been a tolerant country, but this tolerance is under pressure from Islamist radicals who want to drive wedges between the country’s Muslim majority (86%), Protestants (6%), Catholics (6%), Hindus (1.8%) and other faiths. Just last month, an evangelical seminary was forced out of a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Jakarta. The annual U.S. State Department freedom of religion report released on Friday reported radical pressure on Christians and on the Ahmadis, a non-orthodox Muslim sect:
“Some groups used violence and intimidation to force at least 12 churches and 21 Ahmadiyya mosques to close. Several churches and Ahmadiyya mosques remained closed after mobs forcibly shut them down in previous years. Some Muslim organizations and government officials called for the dissolution of the Ahmadiyya, resulting in some violence and discrimination against its followers. Some perpetrators of violence were undergoing trials during the reporting period. However, many perpetrators of past abuse against religious minorities were not brought to justice.”
Some analysts have said the megachurch, rather than being a monument to the country’s religious tolerance, reflects a reaction among Christians to seek safety in numbers as they stand up for their place in Indonesian society. Three other megachurches are due to open soon, the Wall Street Journal reported recently. The question now is whether these will be taken as provocations … and what might happen next.
“The danger is if several parties perceive the church as a way to Christianise people. That could provoke hatred,” Syafi’i Anwar, director of the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), told Reuters. “It is not proof that religious tolerance is running well here. Recently, there has been increasing pressure on the government from hardline groups over freedom of faith.”
It sounds like one of these men has to be wrong. Let’s hope it’s not Tong.