They are frequently subjected to persecution and in recent years radical Islamic groups have forced the closure of many churches. But now some church groups are finding strength in the development of mega-churches, vast structures constructed in the style of American evangelical churches. With seating for up to 8,000 the nation's first mega-church was recently opened in Jakarta.
Presenter: Katie Haman
Speaker: Church leader Dr Stephen Tong; congregation member Yunus Liauw; Jesuit priest Father Franz Magnis Suseno
KATIE HAMANN, REPORTER: Dr Stephen Tong is a man on a mission. At 67, he has the energy of a 20-year-old and the bravado common to his brand of evangelical ministering.
DR STEPHEN TONG, EVANGELICAL MINISTER: I've been preaching to more than 30 million people, you know, in past 51 years and to more than 25 nations, to 600 cities in the world.
KATIE HAMANN: Born in China in 1940, Dr Tong migrated to Indonesia at the age of 9. After committing to the ministry at the South East Asia Bible Seminary in East Java, he went on to develop his own brand of evangelical reformed church. It took 16 years for the Indonesian government to approve his Colosseum like Cathedral Messiah and although still in construction, Jakarta's Christians are flocking in their thousands for Dr Tong's sometimes 3-hour weekly sermon, delivered in Bahasa Indonesian...and Mandarin. According to Dr Tong and his flock, Cathedral Messiah is a symbol of Indonesia's expansive religious tolerance. Unis Liao has been a member of his congregation since 1989.
UNIS LIAO, A MEMBER OF THE MESSIAH POPULATION: In the majority of the Muslim population in Indonesia, this is witness that our God is alive.
KATIE HAMANN: Funded exclusively by his local congregation, the US $27 million development can hold up to 8,000 people in two separate chambers. It has 20 classrooms for Sunday school and a seminary, university and art museum will eventually be housed in an adjoining tower block. But not everyone shares Tong's enthusiasm. Father Franz Magnus Seseno is a Jesuit priest, resident of Indonesia for more than four decades and leader in interreligious dialogue.
FATHER FRANZ MAGNUS SESENO, JESUIT PRIEST: Now, I think, yes, I would say, there may be among this kind of Protestant evangelical group, there is an even over confidence. It is not really in touch with general societal situation in Indonesia.
KATIE HAMANN: Hundreds of churches have been closed or destroyed across the archipelago in recent years, and the police criticised for failing to prevent or prosecute vigilante action against Christians. Dr Syafi'i Anwar is the director of the Jakarta based International Centre for Islam and Pluralism and one of Indonesia's most respected moderate Muslim intellectuals. In July this year, he was attacked by radical Islamists at a peaceful multi-faith rally. He says intolerance is growing among some religious groups.
DR SYAFI'I ANWAR, DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRE FOR ISLAM AND PLURALISM: I was attacked by a radical conservative Islam and I was hospitalised for four days. This is problem because they're considered that I am liberal Islam and I am committed to religious freedom, I am committed to pluralism, etc. Those groups defy development of entire pluralism, entire religious freedom. They would consider that the establishment of the church, if especially it is capitalist item, as a means of, you know, Christian association in Indonesia. That would be sensitive so we must be careful as well.
KATIE HAMANN: Both father Magnus and Dr Anwar agree that the survival of churches depends much on the ability of congregations to reach out to and help their local community. Dr Tong says he signed an agreement with local leaders that the church and its members would be respected. So far he has refused local government requests to remove the cross that soars above the church's roof. He concedes the fight for religious freedom has yet to be won but says he has God and Indonesia's constitution on his side.
DR STEPHEN TONG: Biggest populated Muslim nation, that is true, and this is a nation, which written clearly in constitution, that fights for religion including Islam, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhism and Hinduism are given equal right to worship, to believe according to everybody's faith, in their own order, to propagate their belief and to have their building. So we just practice what is given by the law because human right is a gift from God and the freedom of religion is not given by government, but is a gift from God.