In Indonesia, the Chinese go to church

Posted in Other | 29-Apr-06 | Author: Roderick Brazier| Source: International Herald Tribune

Benny Hinn in Indonesia.

Benny Hinn, superstar Christian televangelist and faith healer, made a multi-city tour of Indonesia in late March. More than 100,000 arm-waving disciples paid more than $100 each to hear his electrifying sermons and to witness him raising cripples from wheelchairs.

Indonesia, home of the world's biggest Muslim population, seems an unlikely destination for Hinn. But Indonesia's big cities are now part of the international evangelical circuit, and charismatic Protestant churches are growing apace.

Indonesia's Muslims show no interest in Hinn and his fellow Christian preachers. But the rich, urban ethnic Chinese of Indonesia are flocking to Christianity. Since the 1950s, when only a small elite was Christian, several million Chinese have abandoned traditional Chinese religions in favor of Christianity, most commonly evangelical Protestant churches.

Of the estimated five million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, well over 70 percent are now Christian. The ebullient and staggeringly rich charismatic churches are thriving by spreading a message of personal confidence and material success that seems to hold special appeal for young Chinese.

The mass conversion to Christianity occurred in two waves. In the 1950s and 60s, many Chinese converted as a response to Indonesia's official intolerance of traditional Chinese culture.

Convinced - sometimes justly - that the Chinese were halfhearted supporters of independence, the post-revolutionary government punished the Chinese by severely stifling their culture. Chinese schools were banned, pushing pupils into Christian schools. Chinese temples were stripped of "Chinese characteristics" and worship could only be conducted discreetly.

In contrast, Christians enjoyed far greater freedom of worship. For the ethnic Chinese, Christianity offered a life with less persecution and wider acceptance, especially by officialdom. Between 1957 and 1969 the number of Chinese Catholics surged by more than 400 percent.

The second phase of conversion began in the late 1970s, when the government de-recognized Confucianism. By law, Indonesians must profess a religion, so Confucians were forced to choose another of the five sanctioned faiths.

At about that same time, wealthy international churches began a stunningly successful campaign to proselytize the ethnic Chinese.

These charismatic Protestant groups deftly crafted a message that caters to the social and cultural preferences of the Chinese. For example, in contrast to Buddhism or Catholicism, the charismatic churches endorsed the accumulation of wealth - a message that is attractive to a group for whom money has been a major cushion in a boisterous and volatile society.

The charismatic churches also exhibit a modern outlook that is magnetic to upwardly mobile young Chinese. "Happy clappy" services are marked by the extensive use of English in sermons, songs and prayers. Fusty hymns have been replaced by Christian pop music played live by young bands.

Across urban Indonesia, where almost all Chinese live, signs of the shift abound. Jakarta's two cable television operators each carry two 24 hour Christian channels; neither carries comparable Islamic content. So called "mall churches," operating in rented space in shopping malls, have attracted a sizeable following.

The shift of religious affiliation among the ethnic Chinese of Indonesia follows a trend previously observed among ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia.

As in Malaysia, the shift to Christianity among the ethnic Chinese occurred around the same time that Muslims began to show greater piety. It seems reasonable to conclude that Christians, including the ethnic Chinese, are reacting to the quickening Islamization of Indonesia by showing greater outward piety themselves.

Unlike traditional Chinese religions, the charismatic churches offer an acceptable way for the Chinese to assert a distinct identity noisily and passionately. Moreover, the Christian churches have links to powerful international constituencies that eagerly defend the rights of Christian minorities worldwide.

What does this shift mean for Indonesia? As the ethnic Chinese are absorbed into the Christian community, the key fissures in Indonesian society become less along ethnic or racial lines, and more along religious ones.

That need not be a problem, so long as Christian proselytizing is confined to non-Muslims. If Christians start trying to convert Muslims, the response might well be different.

(Roderick Brazier is the Asia Foundation's assistant country representative in Indonesia.)