Preacher Stephen Tong waited 16 years to get permission to build the Reformed Millennium Cathedral in Jakarta.
Preacher Stephen Tong waited 16 years to get permission to build the Reformed Millennium Cathedral in Jakarta. Michael Sullivan/NPR
Tong leads a service for the cathedral's congregation.
Tong leads a service for the cathedral's congregation. Michael Sullivan/NPR
Indonesia has received a lot of bad press in recent years: for bombings in Bali and at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in the capital, Jakarta — both the work of al-Qaida-linked militants — and for numerous attacks on Christian churches. But Indonesia overall is a far more tolerant place than these acts suggest, and it appears to be getting even more accepting.
Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other nation. But in Jakarta, a $27 million Christian church that seats more than 4,500 people opened its doors last month. The Reformed Millennium Cathedral is the work of preacher Stephen Tong, a sprightly 67-year-old who waited 16 years to get permission to build his church.
Under the dictator Suharto, who died in January, Indonesia's government was wary of the country's ethnic Chinese. They make up a large percentage of Indonesia's Christian minority. The government was also concerned about offending the country's Muslim majority by allowing too many new churches to be built.
"There's a lot of Christians here," Tong says of Indonesia. But because of the government's reluctance to grant permission for churches, he says, they have had to worship in places like banks, restaurants, hotels and schools.
Three more megachurches are now under construction around Jakarta. That's an affirmation of Christian faith and, Tong says, a political statement, too.
"The message is: We are Christians," he says. "We are living here as a fact you should recognize and you should respect. ... We do not provoke anybody. We want to make peace, so we never think about provocation. We build a big church because it is a fact that we need it."
But a small minority does view the churches warily. The Islamic Defenders Front, the self-appointed guardians of Indonesia's Muslim identity, tried — and failed — to stop construction of the Millennium Cathedral, says the group's advisory board director, Habib Muchsin.
Mainstream Islam respects other religions, Mucshin says. But he says his group objects if members of those religions actively try to convert Muslims.
For his part, Tong is a bit cagey about that particular issue.
"Every religion [tries] to propagate their religion and to get more members. That is something so natural," he says. "So, as pastor, I want to preach Gospel, I want to make people know about Jesus Christ."
He refuses to be pinned down about whether his church actively seeks out converts. Nor will he speak about what steps he's taken to prevent hard-line Islamists from causing trouble. But there was plenty of security on one recent Sunday: hard-looking men with the unmistakable look of former soldiers.
But Tong is convinced Indonesia is headed in the right direction 10 years after the fall of Suharto, with democracy firmly taking root.
"In other countries, they think Indonesia messy and intolerant and is very radical, but I think not so," he says. "Because most Muslims in Indonesia [are] still very, very friendly and very good."
How long Indonesia will remain tolerant depends on a number of factors — not the least of which is how much proselytizing these new Christian churches really do.