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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 2, 2006
Heavens, Asia's going Christian
By Michael Vatikiotis

SINGAPORE - The official guide to churches and Christian organizations in Singapore runs to more than 390 pages. With names like God@work, Great Shepherd Assembly and City Impact, there are 44 registered churches from the US-based Assemblies of God alone in Singapore. A Christian from Myanmar, a Korean Christian, even a Thai Christian can find services in their own language - though for the most part Chinese is the language of the Christian faith here.

Singapore is one of the fastest-growing Christian communities in Asia, along with Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. In fact,

Asia is projected to become one of the largest Christian populations in the world, on pace to eclipse Europe in the next 30 years. The US State Department estimates there could already be as many as 100 million Christians in China, even though the official tally of believers is below 50 million.

The US-led "war on terror" has focused worldwide concern on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a precursor to violent militancy. Moderate or secular behavior among Asia's Muslims is considered the long-term antidote to religious fervor. But in the wider context encompassing Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, the trend in Asia is anything but moderate or secular. Across the region, charismatic sects are springing up and drawing young people to religious faith. And new Asian converts to Christianity are arguably outpacing the spread of Islam.

The new believers are often Asia's upwardly mobile, although the dirt-poor and desperate still flock to Christianity's promise of eternal salvation. Far from embracing materialist and consumer values and completely abandoning religion, middle-class Chinese residents of Singapore, Taipei and Hong Kong all regularly flock to Pentecostal or charismatic churches.

The houses of worship offer relief from the stress of modern existence to the accompaniment of pop music - and some throw in fresh coffee and broadband Internet for good measure. They are active in social welfare, and sometimes in politics - the Pentecostal Church of Taiwan has advocated independence from China for the island, which Beijing still claims is a renegade province. In Hong Kong, the church backs the movement for democracy.

The trend toward religiosity in Asian societies is plain, if not predictable. As Asia's economies have grown, many at a breakneck pace, so too have social inequalities and uncertainties. In urban areas, the resulting hardships are felt even more because migration deprives people of family or community support and breeds alienation. The church, the temple or the mosque is often the only place people facing hardship can turn to.

Every Sunday as many 12,000 people, in shifts of several thousand, cram into the Rock auditorium at the Suntech Convention Center in the heart of Singapore's business district. They are members of the New Creation Church founded in 1983, and its pastors tell their followers what they want to hear. The church's website boasts "many miraculous healings of cancers, tumors, kidney conditions and much more". The site also mentions "God's supernatural provision in the area of finances".

Not far away in Jurong district, the Reverend Kong Hee, accompanied by his pop-singer wife Ho Yeow Sun, packs in a similar number at the City Harvest Church. With a backing band belting out soft pop music in the background, the US-trained evangelist croons: "We enter the presence of God in worship, receive his spoken word that strengthens, encourages, nurtures and transforms us ..." The youthful congregation, dressed mainly in T-shirts and jeans, is ecstatic.

Charismatic pastors like Kong Hee are bringing Jesus into the marketplace of ideas and finding a pent-up demand for faith. The trend is creating a surge in Christian missionary activities, and with it spirited competition with activist Islam. Singaporean church organizations were very active in providing relief for victims of the December 2004 tsunami in strictly Islamic Aceh, prompting some Indonesian concerns about quid pro quo proselytization.

Like many Christian evangelists, Indonesian Islamic preachers such as A A Gymnastiar hog prime-time television spots during the Ramadan holy month, crooning their own brand of charismatic Islam. Their zany style is harmless enough, although without a doubt the growing appeal of strict Islamic adherence is breeding intolerance among some sections of Indonesian society.

There was a measurable increase in the number of hours given over to religious broadcasting during Ramadan last year. Nearly all restaurants serving alcohol were forced to close in line with the tradition of fasting. Supermarkets had withdrawn hard liquor from their shelves and foreign food brands are reacting by highlighting their halal compliance on packaging.

Some years ago, American scholar Samuel Huntington predicted a clash of civilizations along religious lines. Even with the growth of religiosity, in Asia that clash is yet to come to pass. Anger over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper has been deeply felt in Asia's Muslim communities - but the anger was directed at irreverent Europeans, not local Christians.

In much of Asia, strong traditions of pluralism and accommodation have allowed Islam and Christianity to blossom side by side. Governments in Malaysia and Indonesia are promoting inter-faith dialogue to help shore up these traditions. Even nominally atheist China has recently loosened up on its hordes of Christian devotees. As Christianity takes deeper root in Asia, it is just as likely to spread without fear and resentment: a vibrant collage rather than clash of civilizations.

Michael Vatikiotis is former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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