The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Mochtar and James Riady, the billionaire bankers from Indonesia, have reputations not only for spreading their wealth; they pass the plate as well.
Owners of the Lippo Group, a banking conglomerate embroiled in the White House campaign-finance scandals, both father and son attend an evangelical church in Jakarta. The church and its pastor, Stephen Tong, have ties to Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) of Orlando, Fla., and Jackson, Miss.
According to Mr. Tong, Mochtar Riady converted to Christ at a retreat conducted by Mr. Tong 10 years ago. The elder Riady attended the first day of the meeting, and on the second, he stood before the gathering to proclaim himself a sinner. Mr. Tong believes Mochtar Riady to be "a sincere Christian," even though neither he nor James has become a member at Reformed Evangelical Church. Mr. Tong told WORLD he would describe both men as "frequent visitors."
Finding a credible Christian testimony among the shady characters funneling millions to the White House should clear some air, shouldn't it? Wrong.
Asians and Asian-Americans speak of "culture conflict" to describe why money laundering and illegal donations in Washington are viewed as ultimate gestures of friendship in the Far Pacific. Is that the way to square the word of Riady associates-who told of the Riadys' "integrity and honesty" in business-with the growing evidence that U.S. trade policy was bought and even national secrets passed?
Much is unclear. All that is clear is that James and Mochtar Riady have established ties to respected members of the evangelical community in Asia and the United States. Those could be strained or strengthened as the Washington investigation grows.
RTS president Luder Whitlock has visited Reformed Evangelical Church and an affiliate seminary in Indonesia several times. Most recently, he preached at the Jakarta church in July. He says it is not unusual to see one of the Riadys ushering or assisting with the collection of the offering on Sunday mornings. Both Riadys have been active at the Reformed Evangelical Church since its beginning eight years ago. "They don't seem at all out of place in that setting," he told WORLD.
In Washington, the image of Lippo Group senior execs as church-going, Bible-believing acolytes is hard to swallow. The Washington Times described James Riady as "crassly self-interested" after he wrote a three-page memo to an associate on how to extract favors in exchange for a $110,000 contribution to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Riady family is known in Washington for having donated more than $1 million to the Democratic Party, raising questions of illegal foreign influence in the 1996 election campaign. Riady associate John Huang moved $3 million more into Democratic National Committee coffers, at least $50,000 of which has been traced back directly to Lippo accounts.
Mochtar Riady is chairman of Lippo Group, and James is the conglomerate's deputy chairman. Their banking and investment empire includes Hong Kong, China, and the United States, as well as Indonesia. The younger Riady is known to have visited the White House 20 times between 1993 and 1996, with as many as five of those visits occurring in a single week.
James Riady and Mr. Huang met with President Clinton backstage during the MTV Inaugural Ball last January to discuss Mr. Huang's pending appointment to a Commerce Department position which ultimately gave him access to CIA briefings on China. Even a bust of President Clinton, now on display in Washington's National Portrait Gallery, is inscribed "donated in honor of mochtar riady."
Richard Pratt, a professor of Old Testament at RTS, preached in January at the Reformed Evangelical Church in Jarkata and also taught at the Indonesian seminary. He had the opportunity to meet and talk with James Riady during his time in Jarkata. "James Riady has a reputation for being a Christian much like Ross Perot has a reputation as a Texas Presbyterian," he said, "but many evangelicals would wonder."
Like the Lippo Group, Mr. Tong's ministry has also prospered. Started in the mid-1980s, the church in Jarkarta now has over 2,000 members. Mr. Tong said nearly 1,000 people attend each of three Sunday services. A new seminary in Surabaya thrives. Most of its staff are Indonesian and other Asian graduates from RTS in the United States.
Mr. Tong presents a style of worship in contrast to the more plentiful Pentecostal churches. He spent three years preaching through the book of John and said, "I insist on the importance of intellectual, expository preaching." His explicit understanding of Reformed faith has put him at odds with Pentecostal churches in Indonesia, which are more numerous and often larger. He has been openly critical of the "sentimentalism" of the Pentecostal movement. This year his congregation nonetheless stepped in to help Pentecostal churches which came under attack by radical Muslim rioters last December. "This nation is in a time of changing and searching for a new identity. Christianity is growing so rapidly, it causes some resentment."
Two years ago Mr. Tong exported his ministry to the United States. Besides evangelism work among Asian-Americans, he began Reformed Institute, a month-long summer gathering of Asian-Americans which meets on the campus of American University in Washington.
Its purpose, according to a brochure, is "to prepare and equip Christians, intellectuals, and God's workers for the challenge of the global evangelization of the Chinese in the 21st century." In a statement written for the brochure, Mr. Tong criticizes the Chinese "blind faith in communism," as well as Western theology's "excess confidence of humanism."
The first session of the Institute, held in June 1996 and attended by 100 people, featured Mochtar Riady as special lecturer. He spoke at a two-hour evening session on "Asian-Pacific Economics and the Future of China." No tapes or transcripts of the speech were made, according to Institute director Jahja Ling. Mr. Ling, who is resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and organizes the summer Institute on a voluntary basis, said Mr. Riady spoke at the invitation of Mr. Tong.
According to Stephen Chan, dean of the Institute and professor of theology at Seattle University, Mr. Riady used the first chapter of Genesis to give a "quite broad" perspective on conducting business as a Christian. Mr. Chan said, "His motive for doing business is one with his Christian understanding of it."
Mr. Riady's lecture coincided with a White House campaign to scuttle a vote in Congress to end China's Most Favored Nation trade status. Mr. Clinton successfully persuaded the GOP leadership not to take action on MFN that year. When conservative and Christian lawmakers mounted an effort to end MFN again one year later, they were opposed not only by the White House but also by Christian mission agencies in a campaign headed by Samuel Ling, the director of China Horizon. Mr. Ling was on the 1996 faculty of Reformed Institute, along with Mr. Riady.
Mr. Chan said he did not recall Mochtar Riady's discussing policy or trade issues during the lecture. He defended Mr. Riady in the present scandal. "I know him personally as a Christian," he said. "I don't want to be a defender and say that anyone is unaware or innocent of wrongdoing. But I believe that Mr. Riady was actively being solicited by Americans, then passively drawn into a storm that is politically and journalistically driven."
Add to the growing list of Riady religious connections liberal activist Jesse Jackson. A year ago James Riady had a hand in bringing Mr. Jackson to Indonesia for a series of talks. Rainbow-PUSH Coalition spokesman Gary Massoni would not confirm the details of the trip for WORLD, but according to Mr. Tong, Mr. Jackson spoke primarily about low wages being paid in Indonesia's shoe factories. Mr. Tong said Mr. Riady even persuaded him to allow Mr. Jackson time to speak to his congregation.
"For five minutes he spoke in our church," said Mr. Tong, contrary to news reports that Mr. Jackson actually preached there. "I do not give my time of preaching to others. It is the most important time of the church," Mr. Tong said.
Mr. Tong did not want to discuss the Riadys' present situation. "We don't get involved in political issues," he said. But when pressed he defends them this way: "The Riadys are involved in all kinds of work-with church, with friends, and in business. In all of these, he is trying to help. He was very happy when Clinton became president. He felt he had helped a friend. I don't think there was any other motivation."
Mochtar Riady got his start in business running a bicycle repair shop in Jarkata. He rose to prominence in banking as part of the Salim Group, another Indonesian investment conglomerate. Liem Sioe Liong, its founder, is from an ethnic Chinese family, like Mr. Riady. They form a tiny minority that is disproportionately wealthy and considered of Christian heritage in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Mr. Liong often goes by an Islamicized name, Soedono Salim. In 1995 Forbes magazine reported six new billionaires in Indonesia; all were partners in the Salim Group, and one was Mochtar Riady.
To say that the Riadys cast a wide net would be an understatement. "They seem to support a number of things," said RTS's Mr. Pratt, and that vague description was given by each acquaintance of the Riadys who spoke with WORLD. Outside Jarkata, James Riady is replacing a poor den of huts and black-water canals with a modern, American-style city designed to house several hundred thousand people. An elaborate shopping mall and state-of-the-art hospital are already underway.
"Whenever you have people like that who have that kind of power, they are going to suffer all kinds of personal attacks," Mr. Pratt said. "On the other hand, people may not see the ruthless business side needed to get there." Barring either a grant of congressional immunity or an indictment and extradition from Indonesia, people may never see it.