In 1855 two German carpenter missionaries landed on the coast of northwestern Irian. They had been selected by J. E. Gossner and sent by an independent faith mission in Holland. In 1862 the Utrechtsche Zendingsvereeniging took over the Irian mission, which in the first decade was more or less confined to the east coast of the Bird’s Head. The Dutch missionaries were assisted by teacher-preachers from from other islands, mainly Moluccans. Progress was very slow, so that after 25 years the number of missionary graves was greater than that of converted Irianese. The extremely negative attitude of most missionaries toward local religion and culture may be considered one of the causes, but also the fact that the Irianese were caught in a vicious circle of revenge (head-hunting) from which a single village or tribe could not escape. In 1907, however, a great revival started which brought thousands into the church. The mission spread to the whole north coast of Irian and the islands, the south coast being allotted by the Dutch colonial government to the RCathMission. The period 1907-1942 was one of gradual development, in which the teacher training school at Miei played a great role. Its leader, I. S. Kijne (1923-1958 in Irian), used his wide range of talents in educating Irianese evangelists and teachers and creating hymnbooks which were used all over Indonesia. However, at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942, there was no church assembly other than at the local level, and the first Irianese were not ordained as ministers until as late as 1950. By then development was hastened by the political circumstances. In 1956 the first Synod convened. In 1963, when Irian Jaya was surrendered to Indonesia, most Dutch missionaries left Irian.
Even though the visible manifestations of tribal religions have disappeared, except for some remote areas in the interior, they still remain a challenge to the church. One of the key elements in those religions was what is commonly called the “cargo cult” (Koreri-movements).These movements occurred periodically throughout the missionary period and into the era of independence. The church also faces serious problems in the social-economic field. After 1963 the island, with its great economic potential, was open to immigration from other parts of Indonesia. The ethnic Irianese were not always ready to face economic competition. Locally this led to symptoms of social disintegration. With immigration, Islam, which until then had been marginal, entered Irian. The extreme ethnic and linguistic fragmentation of the island and the rivalry between the dominant ethnic units also created difficulties. However, it has to be noted that these difficulties did not cause the church to split. In the 1970s the church had to cope with the tensions generated by an insurrection against the Indonesian government. The Evangelical missionary organizations which worked in the interior since 1938 refused cooperation with the GKI, as this church was supposed not to meet their doctrinal and moral standards. The Catholic Church invaded the North and attracted many young GKI members with its excellent schools. Nevertheless the GKI-Irja, with its approximately 650,000 members (1997), still includes the mass of the population in northern and western Irian and is the greatest single church in Irian (about 30% of the total population). The church has some hospitals, a diaconal foundation, and a large number of schools from primary (467) to academic level. It publishes a bi-monthly magazine, Serikat(“Bond”).