seating for more than 4,500 worshippers
A religious revolution is transforming Indonesia. Part of the spiritual blossoming entails Muslims embracing a more conservative form of faith, mirroring global trends that have meant a proliferation of headscarves and beards in modern Islamic capitals. More surprising, though, is the boom in Christianity — officially Indonesia's second largest faith and a growing force throughout Asia. Indeed, the number of Asian Christian faithful exploded to 351 million adherents in 2005, up from 101 million in 1970, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based in Washington, D.C. (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
Much of the growth comes from Pentecostal and Evangelical conversions, which have spread charismatic Christianity across the globe and are a large reason for estimates that by 2050 a majority of Christians will be living in developing nations. Already, less than a quarter of the world's 600 million Pentecostals reside in the West, where the modern movement has its roots. Indeed, Pentecostalism is believed by some to be the fastest-growing faith in the world, if measured by conversions as opposed to births.
Because of the relative youth of these Evangelical sects, they are less bound by the history of colonial conversion that has complicated the legacy of, say, Roman Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism. Instead, by focusing on personal salvation adapted to local environments, Evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, have found great success across Asia in recent years, from Indian metropolises like Chennai to rural China where homegrown sects are drawing in tens of thousands of people each year. The world's largest megachurch is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, which claims a membership of 830,000 people. Its Pentecostal Sunday services regularly attract a quarter of a million people to an upscale neighborhood of Seoul. In poorer regions of Asia, as well as within many ethnic Chinese communities, converts are lured by the so-called prosperity gospel, an American theology linked to charismatic Christianity that promises riches to those who follow a moral path.
For many in the global Evangelical community, though, it is the faith's inroads in Indonesia — a nation with some 215 million Muslim adherents — that are most riveting. Exact figures are hard to gather in a country where conversions from Islam to Christianity face a stigma and likely lead to an underreporting of Christian believers. The 2000 census counted just under 10% of Indonesians as Christians, a figure many Christian leaders believe is too low. Anecdotal evidence paints a compelling picture of the faith's rapid rise. In the early 1960s, for instance, there were no Evangelical churches in Temanggung, where the soccer-field revival took place; now there are more than 40. In the capital Jakarta, newly built megachurches that might seem more at home in Texas send steeples into the sky. Other Christians worship at unofficial churches based in hotels and malls, where Sunday services rival shopping as a popular weekend activity. Asia's tallest statue of Jesus Christ, built in 2007, presides over Manado city in eastern Indonesia, while Indonesian cable TV beams 24-hour Christian channels.
State of Grace — and Disgrace
What is it about Evangelical Christianity that has so resonated in Indonesia? As in many other crowded, developing-world countries where a person can feel lost in a teeming slum, the concept of individual salvation is a powerful one. At the same time, the attempted hijacking of Muslim theology by a small band of homegrown terrorists who have killed hundreds of Indonesians in recent years has led some to question their nation's majority faith. So, too, has the general trend toward a more conservative Islam that has given rise to hundreds of religiously inspired bylaws, from caning for beer-drinking to enforced dress codes for women.
Not everyone, though, is celebrating Christianity's boom. Some Muslims view the faith as an unwanted foreign influence, even though Islam, too, is an imported religion. Since the country exchanged dictatorship for democracy more than a decade ago, a great diversity of voices has arisen. But an unfortunate byproduct of this pluralism has been an uptick in religious conflict, which has affected unorthodox offshoots of Islam and Christian sects alike. Although bloody outpourings — like the communal riots that claimed more than 1,000 Christian and Muslim lives in Poso and Ambon around a decade ago — have ceased, spasms of violence are still occurring.
Over the past couple of years, Christian groups say, dozens of churches and theological academies have been destroyed or forced to shut by Islamic groups who accuse Christians of stealing believers from Muslim ranks. Despite appointing prominent Christians to his Cabinet, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said little to defend religious minorities, and has remained silent as dozens of local governments pass Islamic-based laws that threaten Christian rights. Such moves "conflict with the constitution and have the potential to threaten freedom of religion in this country," according to Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute, a Jakarta-based NGO that promotes pluralism.
Last year, the Indonesia Ulema Council, an influential Islamic clerical body, sounded the alarm about Christian proselytization and called on Muslims to more staunchly guard their faith. The pace with which unlicensed churches are being shut down by local authorities is also increasing. Christians complain that gaining official sanction to build a mosque is easy while getting similar permission for churches is glacial. As a consequence, most Christian houses of worship are unofficial. "There is a real fear that Christianity is on the march," says Mike Hilliard, a Scottish minister who with his Indonesian wife runs an orphanage outside Jakarta that has been targeted by militant Muslims. "Because of this fear, emotions are easily stirred up and mobs can form quickly."
Defenders of faith have mobilized in neighboring Malaysia too. After a local court ruled on Dec. 31 that a Malaysian Christian newspaper could refer to the Christian deity as Allah, many Muslims, who constitute the multiethnic country's majority, protested. Christians professed puzzlement: when speaking Malay, they had used the word Allah for centuries — why the sudden outrage now? Prominent Islamic activists responded by saying that sharing one word for two different gods could lead some Muslims to unwittingly stray to Christianity. By January, passions had spilled onto holy turf, with around a dozen churches, one mosque and a Sikh temple attacked. Late that month, eight people were arrested for suspected roles in the firebombing of a Pentecostal church in the capital of Kuala Lumpur.
As both Muslims and Christians more fervently express their faith, a kind of spiritual siloing is developing in Southeast Asia, in contrast to the sectarian mixing that often characterized relations in previous generations. "Even compared to five years ago, relations between Christians and Muslims have worsened," says Father Andang Binawan, a Roman Catholic priest in Jakarta who holds a Ph.D. in theology from a Belgian university. "Many people now, including government officials, feel pressure by society to identify themselves as good Muslims and they worry that by associating with people of other religions, they will be seen as less pious. Even saying 'Merry Christmas' to a Christian can be seen as a problem."
At the same time, aggressive proselytization by Evangelical groups, both foreign and local, leads to accusations that Christians are hungry for souls — and church donations. Website and sermon invectives, in which some Christian preachers dismiss Muslims as terrorists, also feed a prejudicial cycle that is spinning both sides away from Indonesia's pluralistic underpinnings. (Unlike neighboring Malaysia, which was set up as a Muslim state — although one that guarantees minority religious rights — Indonesia recognizes six official faiths: Islam, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.) "We have many [religions], and they all coexist peacefully," President Yudhoyono told TIME last November. "This is the capital we will use to show that a clash of civilizations can be prevented." But even as he spoke, Christian theological students were staging a sit-in on a busy Jakarta street to protest having been intimidated into evacuating their campus after threats from Muslim mobs. A clash of civilizations seemed to be exactly what was taking place.
To get to the hip-hop concert, you have to walk through a five-star hotel's lobby, go past a parking lot and take a cramped elevator ride to the 12th floor. There, in an anonymous Jakarta annex syncopated by a purple strobe light, Indonesian youths dance for Jesus. The congregation bops to the beat, waving their arms in the air as the lyrics implore them to let their "lives be a celebration" of Jesus' love. After pastor Jose Carol takes to the stage, some worshippers whip out their iPhones, onto which they have loaded electronic copies of the Bible. Back when the Jakarta Praise Community Church formed a decade ago, only a couple hundred people attended its services; today the congregation has grown to 5,500 mostly young urbanites.
A few hours earlier, in Jakarta's Kemayoran business district, parishioners gathered in the main auditorium of the Evangelical Reformed Millennium Center, which seats more than 4,500 people. Above the crowds, a pair of giant TV screens broadcast the sermon of Stephen Tong, an Indonesian pastor who conducts weekly services throughout Asia — including Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong — and ministers to a regional congregation that has grown to 15,000 in just two decades. Opened in 2008, the church complex cost $30 million to build — and it took 17 years to obtain permission from local authorities. The privately funded church is the largest licensed one in the capital, although an unofficial megachurch with space for 10,000 faithful is nearing completion in a Jakarta suburb. When Tong, 69, raised a crucifix onto the church's massive steeple, worshippers at a nearby mosque complained. Tong didn't back down. "Jakarta has 1.2 million Christians, so a church for 4,000 people is nothing," he says. "We did this all legally, so why can't we put a cross on our church, just like mosques have their symbol?"
Other Indonesian Christians worry that such towering icons will only serve to inflame Muslim sentiment. The dangers are all too real. Take the hundreds of students from the Arastamar Evangelical School of Theology, who staged the November sit-in. They were subsisting in refugee-like conditions, sleeping on thin mats in an abandoned Jakarta building with no electricity or running water. Before that, the beleaguered students lived for months in a park, 35 to a tent. Yet on the outskirts of east Jakarta, the Christian college actually had a handsome campus. In July 2008, hundreds of Islamic extremists crowded the school's gates, accusing students of proselytizing among the local Muslim community — a charge the institute's leaders deny. When three students tried to escape, thugs threw acid in their faces. With local government officials advising the student population to decamp because of continuing danger, Arastamar officials had no choice but to accept the government's proposal for makeshift housing. "How can you say there is true freedom of religion here if things like this can happen to us?" asks school principal Jusup Lifire.
Muslim converts to Christianity are also targets, their apostasy viewed by some radical Islamic scholars as deserving of execution. Syaiful Hamzah grew up as the madrasah-attending son of a Muslim family in Jakarta that helped build the neighborhood mosque. But while working in eastern Indonesia's Maluku archipelago, which has a substantial Christian population, he was swayed by Evangelical teachings. By 2000, he had been baptized at a Pentecostal church and returned to Jakarta to begin theological studies. His family cut him off; one brother threatened to burn his house down. Undeterred, he began lay-preaching to a house-church congregation in his modest home near Jakarta's port. In 2008, a mob armed with clubs showed up and demanded Syaiful stop. He shuttered his church but still guides Muslim converts to Christianity, the number of which he says is growing, in part, because of the terror attacks unleashed in Indonesia in the name of Islam. "So many have converted," he says, "but they are afraid to say so publicly because Muslims will harass them."
The numbers of converts may not be as high as Islamic groups fear. Some so-called converts were Christians all along. In the 1960s, a government anticommunist drive forced each citizen to pick a religion for inclusion on their national ID card. (Suspected communists were quick to pick a religion to convince authorities they were not atheist Marxists.) Worried about future persecution and loath to give up the chance for certain career opportunities reserved for Muslims, some Christians chose Islam for their ID cards, even though they quietly kept going to church. Now they're officially switching to their true religion, seeing safety in growing numbers. Another significant group of Indonesian converts to charismatic sects is ethnic Chinese. But they are abandoning Chinese religions or mainline Protestantism, not Islam.
still, it's hard to ignore the power of a revival like the one held in Temanggung — and easy to understand why some Muslims have reservations about encroaching Christianity. Permission to hold the meeting was only granted after the organizers put up a sign forbidding Muslims from entering. Nevertheless, among the line of sick and suffering hoping to be healed was an elderly Muslim man who others said was blind. After fervent prayers from worshippers in the driving rain, he suddenly blinked and gazed at the gathered crowd. "A Muslim who can now see," said pastor Jason Balompapueng, tears rising in his eyes. "It is a miracle." The faithful urged the tottering man onstage to bear witness to his regained sight. As the man clambered up the stairs, he removed his peci, an Indonesian fezlike hat often associated with Islam. A visiting minister from Jakarta blessed him. Another soul was saved, the Christian pastor rejoiced. Tomorrow, he vowed, there would be more.
— With reporting by Jason Tedjasukmana / Jakarta
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