JAKARTA (Reuters) - A multimillion dollar megachurch opened on Saturday in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, with a rousing service attended by some 4,000 people singing hymns and reading from the Bible in Bahasa Indonesia.
Jakarta’s grand Katedral Mesias is the brainchild of a Chinese-Indonesian preacher, Stephen Tong, who says the church is aimed at dispelling the misconception that Indonesia is intolerant of minority faiths.
“This proves that there are no restrictions from the Indonesian government to build religious centres,” said Tong, a charismatic preacher who founded the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church in 1989.
“It gives the world a new impression of Indonesia: it is not a messy country or full of troubles.”
Worshippers at the megachurch, most of them Chinese Indonesians, listened in rapt attention as Tong spoke in both Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia on a host of issues such as church reform and homosexuality during the nearly three-hour service.
The worshippers, many of them dressed in their finest traditional batiks, prayed and sang to Gregorian music and other hymns before ending the service with Handel’s Hallelujah resonating through the massive pillared hall.
Funded by contributions from followers, the white-domed church will eventually also house a seminary, a concert hall and a museum of paintings and Chinese porcelain in an effort to promote religious and cultural understanding.
Christians account for about 10 percent of Indonesia’s 226 million people, and have in the past been the target of hardline Islamic violence in some parts of the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago.
About 85 percent of the population is Muslim and most follow a moderate form of the faith, but a hardline minority has become more vocal in recent years and religious tensions flare up occasionally between Muslims and Christians in some pockets.
Radical Muslim groups have forced several churches and other places of worship to close in recent years, prompting criticism from human rights groups.
Given the climate of hostility, building the megachurch wasn’t easy — it took 16 years for Tong to get the green light from Indonesian authorities.
“Other churches in Indonesia were established by the Dutch and until now many of them still rely on funding from abroad. But our church does not depend on overseas funding,” said Tong.
“This is the only national church, because the money is from Indonesia, the design is from Indonesia, the materials are from Indonesia. There was no support from overseas.”
Megachurches, which pack in thousands for rousing Sunday worship services, are popular in the United States, especially in suburbs and smaller towns where they often serve as a community centre. Most are non-denominational evangelical or Pentecostal, with some linked to the Southern Baptists.
Services in their huge halls usually feature emotional preaching and upbeat modern worship music rather than traditional hymns. Critics accuse megachurches of having a shallow theology and stressing entertainment more than religion.
Some experts said the megachurch in Jakarta was a sign of the growing confidence of the Christian community in Indonesia, while others say it could spark hardline anger and fears of conversions in the Muslim-majority nation.
“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.”
Writing by Sugita Katyal; Editing by Ed Davies