On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Pastors are mere mortals

But it would appear that religious figures are fast catching up when it comes to having their day in court. Religious establishments have increasingly found themselves in the news for the wrong reasons, from allegations of child sex abuse and corruption to leaking documents.

Closer to home, the news of Pastor Kong Hee, founder of the City Harvest Church (CHC), one of Singapore’s richest churches, being charged for allegedly siphoning off nearly S$23mil (RM57mil) has shocked many, including Malaysians.

Hee is alleged to have misused the money to support his wife’s singing career in the United States. His wife Ho Yeow Sun is also a pastor at the mega church. The non-denomination church is said to have net assets worth RM257mil in 2009, according to official estimates. It has affiliate churches in a number of countries, including 11 in Malaysia.

The investigations on the church came just after another high-profile case in 2009 when a prominent Buddhist monk was jailed for six months for misappropriating hospital funds and lying about it to the authorities.

Kong, 47, and four other church executives, who were charged with aiding him, are now out on bail. All have said they will fight to clear their names.

The Singapore authorities have stressed that the charges are against the individuals and not the church.

But the CHC leadership will need to re-evaluate themselves as there is no denying that the church with its 30,000-strong congregation has been under the scrutiny of the authorities, the media and other churches.

Kong, according to reports, lived the lifestyle of a chief executive officer rather than a pastor. According to the church website, he withdrew from City Harvest’s payroll in November 2005 and started his own business.

His emphasis on pop concert-style services seemed to work as many young professionals in the secular world flocked to his church.

It has been reported that 47.4% of its members are below 25 years of age and that the average age of the congregation is 24. The majority of the members are young professionals aged between 25 and 35 and the church endeavours to “build an ultra-modern, energetic and upwardly mobile image”. It has 25 full-time pastors and assistant pastors.

Certainly, it is no easy task for any church in this age of materialism and consumerism, especially in Singapore, to draw in the young people. So credit must be given to Kong.

But there has been mounting criticism over the last few years as the church grew. Its ultra-modern titanium-clad church complex, which includes a RM1.45mil fountain feature, was built at a cost of RM120mil. The toilets, by the church’s own admission, are said to be “the very meaning of style”.

Kong seems to have convinced his congregation that the church’s “Crossover Project”, which included supporting his wife’s singing career in Hollywood, aimed to expand Christianity in the United States and Taiwan through her secular music.

Living in a Hollywood mansion that cost RM63,390 a month to rent, she had an album produced by famed rapper-producer Wyclef Jean and reportedly won some awards. In an entertainment city where money can buy anything, such achievements have been questioned by the cynics.

She has appeared in videos wearing sexy outfits gyrating to rap music and, in one video, even stripped down to her bikini. It is debatable how these videos would convince the secular to find God and flock to churches.

But it would appear, from reports in The Straits Times and based on comments posted on Facebook, that many of the members are prepared to give Kong the benefit of the doubt and are standing by him.

Although we should allow the trial to take its course and wait for the verdict, it is clear that in the court of public opinion, the people view politicians and government officials in a totally different light from religious figures. Caught in a similar situation, most people would have found the former guilty from day one, but not the religious figures.

Many are reluctant to accept that religious figures are also mere mortals. They can put on their religious garb but they are still sinful human beings with their own frailties. In some cases, they come across as just plain greedy and selfish.

In the worst category are those religious figures who interpret the holy books to justify their political ambitions in the name of God. Many of the faithful are caught in a dilemma when they assume that disagreeing with these human beings means questioning God. Nothing could be more wrong.

The faithful should stand firm in their belief in God, but they must not be afraid to question or even challenge their religious leaders if they are wrong.