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Muhammadiyah plans to buy a “neglected” church in Spain’s Alcala, about a 15-minute drive from Madrid. File photo: Xinhua

Indonesian Islamic group eyes ‘soft power’ with Spanish church purchase

  • Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah plans to buy and convert a church in Spain’s Alcala
  • Analysts say the purchase likely hopes to outcompete rival group Nahdlatul Ulama’s influence overseas. NU is Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation with over 90 million members, more than Muhammadiyah’s 60 million
Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organisation is seeking to “enlighten the universe” with its teachings of moderate Islam by converting a Spanish church into a mosque, in what observers say is a bid for soft power over its rival.
Muhammadiyah’s plan was unveiled by its East Java branch during the organisation’s nationwide virtual conference on Saturday. Saad Ibrahim, leader of the branch, said the group was planning to buy an old church in Spain’s Alcala, about a 15-minute drive from Madrid.

“Hopefully, this will be a movement for all of us so that [Allah’s blessings] can be realised through us,” Saad said in a statement released by the branch following the conference.

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Saad said the unnamed church, which used to be a mosque and sits on a land area of around 3,000 square metres, was on sale for around €3 million (US$2.9 million).

“We are in the process of negotiating with the management of the place of worship. They are offering a price of around €3 million or around 45 billion rupiah,” he told This Week in Asia.

According to Saad, the church was being sold as its parish had dwindled to 15 people.

Gold coins dating to the Abbasid Caliphate, unearthed during a press presentation of the discovery at an archaeological site near Tel Aviv in central Israel, on August 18, 2020. Photo: AFP

Saad told the conservative-leaning Indonesian publication Republika on Sunday that he was “deeply touched” with the discovery of a historical Muslim site.

Some regions in Spain and Portugal were part of the Abbasid Caliphate, the third caliphate to succeed the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The empire ruled from AD750 to 1517, with its territories spanning modern-day Iraq, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Sicily, and Egypt, among others.

“[In Spain], there used to be around 800 mosques there [under the caliphate]. Now there’s only a few left, maybe no more than 10, so we were deeply touched [when we found] that there is a neglected, former mosque,” Saad said.

Asked about what kind of activities would take place in the new mosque in Alcala, Saad said the organisation was “still trying to design” its agenda there.


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Bid for ‘soft power’

Alexander Arifianto, research fellow with the Indonesia Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Muhammadiyah’s plan to buy a church in Spain was linked with its attempts to outcompete Nahdlatul Ulama’s influence overseas.

Nadhlatul Ulama, or NU, is Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation with over 90 million members, more than Muhammadiyah’s 60 million members.


“This is not only about buying a church overseas to facilitate an interfaith dialogue, this is part of competition between Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama to show which [Indonesian] moderate Muslim group has the bigger influence and soft power,” Arifianto said.

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This is also not the first time Muhammadiyah expanded its presence beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation. In December, the organisation unveiled its primary school in Australia, Muhammadiyah Australia College in the state of Victoria, which was formerly a Catholic school.
Its schools, ranging from kindergartens to elementary schools, can also be found in Malaysia and Egypt, while the organisation has established its presences in 24 countries including Germany, Japan, France, China, and the United States.
Secretary General of Muslim World League Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa (middle) at the G20 Religion Forum Summit of Religious Leaders in Bali, Indonesia, on November 2. Photo: AFP
Meanwhile, NU has established itself in at least 34 countries outside Indonesia. The group is also seen as being closer to the President Joko Widodo’s administration than Muhammadiyah, as NU was selected to initiate the G20 Religion Forum or R20, that took place in Bali last week, Arifianto said.

“The R20 conference, where NU gathered many religious leaders from all over the world in Bali, gives the impression that NU has a closer relationship with the government. So I think Muhammadiyah is trying to show a different approach in growing its soft power, for example by buying this church in Spain,” he said.

Arifianto estimated that Muhammadiyah would not struggle to buy a property overseas since it has coffers of around “tens of millions of dollars”.

As of earlier this year, Muhammadiyah runs at least 3,334 schools and hundreds of hospitals across Indonesia, while Muhammadiyah’s East Java branch itself runs 86 hospitals and clinics in the region, as well as 1,018 schools, according to the branch’s official website.