Freedom of religion is a firm part of the Indonesian constitution. But recently, there have been increasing clashes between Christians and Muslims. 88 percent of the country’s inhabitants are Muslim and just under 10 percent are Christian. The new mega-church in Jakarta was built in a view to boost tolerance between the two groups and bolster the country’s secular image. It opened in early November with government backing and minimum opposition.
Christians make up just under 10 percent of Indonesia's population
The Cathedral of the Messiah is an imposing building. It sticks out among the glass-fronted high-rises of the business district. 4,000 believers can be housed under its massive dome.
Pastor Stephen Tong, the founder of the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church, fought for 15 years before receiving the approval to build the Christian mega-church. Before, the congregation would meet at hotels to worship but it needed more space, Pastor Tong explained.
“We have over 3,000 members and at least 2,700 of them come every Sunday to worship,” he said. “We did not build this church out of arrogance but because we absolutely needed to accommodate the growing number of believers.”
Indonesia is the country with the highest number of Muslims in the world. Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population. But the numbers have been growing -- especially among the Chinese population.
Clear message of religious freedom and tolerance
Pastor Stephen Tong said the Cathedral of the Messiah sent out a clear message of religious freedom and interreligious tolerance: "It clearly shows that the Indonesian government does not impose any restrictions on building churches and temples. The world can get a different impression of Indonesia and see that it is not a chaotic country in which there are only problems.”
But the Christian Church has encountered some problems recently. The media has reported 120 cases of churches being attacked by Islamists or being shut down in the past year.
In July, radical Muslims stormed a Christian theology college with Molotov cocktails and drove the students off campus. In August, a church in Jakarta was shut down because it apparently could not produce a permit.
Consensus of peaceful co-existence
The Jesuit priest Franz-Magnis Suseno, one of the most respected intellectuals in Indonesia, said such incidents were an exception in a society which is broadly tolerant.
"Indirectly, there are problems because certain Islamists employ violence against so-called false developments within Islam. And there are groups closing down churches which have no permission to do this. There is all sort of undemocratic behaviour. Human rights are not at all secure but at the moment Indonesian society rests on a consensus of peaceful co-existence.”
Pastor Stephen Tong made contact with representatives of the local mosque long before construction began. Although some Muslims were worried about a mega-church being built in the vicinity, generally leaders from the Muslim community were in favour of the project, so long as the church was not built in a largely Muslim residential area.
Maintaining religious harmony
Ichwan Sam, the secretary general of the Indonesian Ulema Council, had a pragmatic attitude: "If a church is built in an appropriate place, for instance in Chinatown, then we have no problem. I think it is good for religious harmony.”
In order to maintain religious harmony, the authorities in Jakarta had asked the Indonesian Reformed Evangelical Church to forego the cross on the steeple. But Stephen Long rejected this request, saying the cross was the most important symbol of a Christian church.
The cathedral opened in early November with support from the government and without undue incident.