Founder of Spore’s biggest 
    church in hot water

   Wall Street Journal
June 27, 2012

By Sam Holmes
SINGAPORE'S fast-growing megachurches have long been a source of debate in the
city-state, which takes pride in having secular policies designed to maintain religious harmony.
Now those debates are likely to heat up again after authorities on Tuesday, June 26, arrested the founding pastor and four executive staff of City Harvest Church for alleged misuse of church funds to fund the pop music career of the senior pastor’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun. Ms Ho is not among the five arrested.

City Harvest Church is a charismatic non-denominational church that has a membership of 33,000, making it Singapore’s largest congregation.

The arrests follow a two-year investigation by Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities and the Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore police into the church.

According to a police statement issued Tuesday, Kong Hee, the church’s 47-year-old
founder, is among the five people arrested Tuesday who will be charged with conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust. All five are due to be charged in court Wednesday.

The Commissioner of Charities said the investigation commenced in May 2010 found
financial irregularities totalling at least S$23 million (US$18 million) from the church’s charity funds.

“These funds were used with the purported intention to finance Ho Yeow Sun’s secular
music career to connect with people,” the Commissioner of Charities said in a statement released Tuesday. “There was a concerted effort to conceal this movement of funds from its stakeholders.”

City Harvest Executive Pastor Aries Zulkarnain said in a statement posted on the church’s website that the five had been instructed to attend court on Wednesday and said church operations, including weekend services, would continue as usual. Efforts to reach Mr Kong and Ms Ho were unsuccessful and it was not immediately known if they had lawyers. A message posted on Twitter using Mr Kong’s handle Tuesday afternoon said: “Tough day … I trust in You, Lord Jesus … Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done!”

The arrests aren’t the first time Singaporean authorities have clashed with church leaders. In a country where about 40% of elected lawmakers identify themselves as Christian–higher than the 18% share of the resident population–Christian activists and leaders have at times found themselves at odds with the prevailing pluralistic
ethos of the state, which seeks to maintain the religious and ethnic harmony of its diverse population through secular policies.

While religious freedom is mostly respected, government leaders have at times put
curbs on some religious displays in order to maintain social cohesion and preserve  the secular nature of the city’s civic spaces, especially as Christian congregrations have grown.

For example, City Harvest’s S$310 million (US$241 million) acquisition in 2010 of a
stake in Suntec Convention Center, a major real-estate property located in the city’s prime downtown area, to boost its meeting place capacity prompted the government to slap some curbs on church expansion.

The government restricted the religious use of commercial property to two days a week and banned religious promotional displays in the properties’ public areas. It this month allowed religious organizations to use industrial property to conduct meetings.

Like megachurches elsewhere, City Harvest has often courted criticism both from secularists, wary of Christians’ influence on civic matters, and other Christians, who disagree with its brand of so-called “prosperity theology,” a religious school of thought that teaches material blessings and health are God’s will for all Christians.

Ms Ho, who helped found the church with her husband and is also known for her modest
success as a Mandarin pop singer, is not among the five charged but has been suspended by the Commissioner of Charities from her executive position on the church’s board.

Twitter and Facebook were filled with messages of support for the husband and wife team, mostly from members of City Harvest Church. Supporters of the church maintained that Singapore is a better place for their contributions, and offered their unwavering dedication to the church and its leaders.

“Standing by City Harvest Church,” said one Twitter user, Joel Kuek (@joelkuek). “I
will not be who I am today, if not for what they have done.”

“This changes nothing,” said another Twitter user and member of City Harvest Church, Wayne Choong (@waynechoong). “My gratitude and love to Pastor Kong Hee for what he’s done to rescue me and my entire family remains.”

Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean in a separate statement Tuesday sought to head off potential tensions that may arise from the arrests, stressing the charges laid are against individuals from the church and not the church itself and that the organization remains free to continue its services and activities.

He also counseled against “speculation or making pre-judgments that may unnecessarily stir up emotions.”

–With contributions from Chun Han Wong and Shibani Mahtani