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Opening of Jakarta's Katedral Mesias Gives New Impression to Indonesia, Says Stephen Tong

Mar 12, 2009 08:39 AM EDT

A Chinese-Indonesian multimillion dollar megachurch that covers 600,000 square feet of land and has two chapels that hold a maximum occupancy of 6,300 people held its opening dedication ceremony in Jakarta, the capital of a Muslim-majority nation, on September 20, 2008.

Jakarta's grand Katedral Mesias (The Cathedral of Messiah of Jakarta Reformed Evangelical Church) is a brainchild of Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong, who says the church is aimed at dispelling the misconception that Indonesia is intolerant of minority faiths, according to Reuters.

"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."

In Indonesia, ethnic Chinese, who made up only about 3% of Indonesia's population and are mostly Christians, have traditionally been made into scapegoats.

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.

In May 1998, a riot broke out in Jakarta, where Indonesian military members allegedly posed as ordinary people attacked Chinese-Indonesian homes and allegedly mass raped the women.

A government minister spoke of the damage or destruction of 2,479 shop-houses, 1,026 ordinary houses, 1,604 shops, 383 private offices, 65 bank offices, 45 workshops, 40 shopping malls, 13 markets, and 12 hotels.

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In January 1999, a religious-nuance conflict erupted in the province of Maluku. In the subsequent 18 months, it was characterized by fighting between largely local groups of Muslims and Christians, the destruction of thousands of houses, the displacement of approximately 500,000 people, the loss of thousands of lives, and the segregation of Muslims and Christians.

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, according to Reuters.

"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."

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."

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