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Well-connected Riadys

International | Lippo Group owners also have ties in the evangelical world

Issue: "Urban mission fundraising," Sept. 27, 1997

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."

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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."

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