Religion: Alive and Well in Asia

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Religion: Alive and Well in Asia

Dur­ing my recent trips in Asia, I was struck by how many Catholic churches and sem­i­nar­ies existed in places like Yan­gon, Myan­mar, and Da Nang, Viet­nam. In Hong Kong, I hap­pened upon a standing-​room-​only church ser­vice, and in Guangzhou, China, the Sacred Heart Cathe­dral has become a tourist stop for many Chinese.

After the 1949 takeover of China, the Com­mu­nist Party out­lawed reli­gious groups and con­tin­ued attacks dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion from 1966 to 1976, which included the destruc­tion of numer­ous Bud­dhist tem­ples and Chris­t­ian churches.

The gov­ern­ment still con­trols the land for reli­gious build­ings and con­strains the lead­er­ship of con­gre­ga­tions, par­tic­u­larly those with for­eign ties. There have been sig­nif­i­cant reli­gious crack­downs, such as that against the Dalai Lama and the Falun Gong move­ment. The Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 after Tibet came under the con­trol of the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. The case of the Falun Gong, who faced a con­certed attack in 1999 and was later banned, is a bit more com­pli­cated. See https://​www​.pri​.org/​s​t​o​r​i​e​s​/201407-​14/​why-​china-​fears-​falun-​gong

In recent years, how­ever, the Com­mu­nist Party of China has become some­what more tol­er­ant of Chris­t­ian churches. All told, an esti­mated 300 mil­lion Chi­nese, or 25 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing about 30 mil­lion Chris­tians, expressed a belief in some faith.

Offi­cially, the Social­ist Repub­lic of Viet­nam is an athe­is­tic state under its Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment. Accord­ing to 2010 esti­mates by the Pew Research Cen­ter, Bud­dhists con­sti­tuted about 16 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, and around 8 per­cent of the Viet­namese were Chris­tians who are mostly Catholic. It was a nice treat to stop by a large road­side shrine on High­way 1 between Da Nang and Hue.

In Myan­mar, which has only recently cast aside five decades of socialist/​Communist rule, more than 6 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion fol­low Chris­tian­ity. The Bap­tists have become par­tic­u­larly strong, although the Catholic Church has a sem­i­nary and large cathe­dral in the capital.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_98839” align=“alignnone” width=“726”] St. Mary’s Cathe­dral in Yan­gon, Myanmar[/caption]

Just around the cor­ner from my hotel in Chi­ang Mai, Thai­land, stood a Mor­mon meet­ing house. I’ve seen Mor­mons all over the world, but I guess I didn’t expect a site in north­ern Thailand.

Accord­ing to the church’s web­site, the first Mor­mon mis­sion­ary to Thai­land arrived in 1854. The con­gre­ga­tion in Chi­ang Mai got started in 1970. In 2009, the Mor­mons reported that they had 16,000 mem­bers in Thailand.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_98838” align=“alignnone” width=“854”] A sign for a Mor­mon meet­ing house in north­ern Thailand[/caption]

After many trips through tem­ples devoted to Bud­dhism, which remains the dom­i­nant faith in Asia, I had a greater under­stand­ing of the religion’s inten­tions, which, although still rather for­eign to me, stress good works and con­sci­en­tious, eth­i­cal living.

As the Dalai Lama, who has his own sig­nif­i­cant dis­putes with the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, wrote recently in The Wall Street Jour­nal:

Today the world faces a cri­sis related to lack of respect for spir­i­tual prin­ci­ples and eth­i­cal val­ues. Such virtues can­not be forced on soci­ety by leg­is­la­tion or by sci­ence, nor can fear inspire eth­i­cal con­duct. Rather, peo­ple must have con­vic­tion in the worth of eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples so that they want to live ethically.”

What­ever the case, the embrace of reli­gion among many peo­ple through­out Asia — whether Bud­dhist or Chris­t­ian – gave me hope, par­tic­u­larly when the West has seen the role of faith drop pre­cip­i­tously over the past few decades.

During my recent trips in Asia, I was struck by how many Catholic churches and seminaries existed in places like Yangon, Myanmar, and Da Nang, Vietnam. In Hong Kong, I happened upon a standing-room-only church service, and in Guangzhou, China, the Sacred Heart Cathedral has become a tourist stop for many Chinese.

After the 1949 takeover of China, the Communist Party outlawed religious groups and continued attacks during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, which included the destruction of numerous Buddhist temples and Christian churches.

The government still controls the land for religious buildings and constrains the leadership of congregations, particularly those with foreign ties. There have been significant religious crackdowns, such as that against the Dalai Lama and the Falun Gong movement. The Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 after Tibet came under the control of the central government. The case of the Falun Gong, who faced a concerted attack in 1999 and was later banned, is a bit more complicated. See https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-07-14/why-china-fears-falun-gong

In recent years, however, the Communist Party of China has become somewhat more tolerant of Christian churches. All told, an estimated 300 million Chinese, or 25 percent of the population, including about 30 million Christians, expressed a belief in some faith.

Officially, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an atheistic state under its Communist government. According to 2010 estimates by the Pew Research Center, Buddhists constituted about 16 percent of the population, and around 8 percent of the Vietnamese were Christians who are mostly Catholic. It was a nice treat to stop by a large roadside shrine on Highway 1 between Da Nang and Hue.

In Myanmar, which has only recently cast aside five decades of socialist/Communist rule, more than 6 percent of the population follow Christianity. The Baptists have become particularly strong, although the Catholic Church has a seminary and large cathedral in the capital.

St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon, Myanmar

Just around the corner from my hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, stood a Mormon meeting house. I’ve seen Mormons all over the world, but I guess I didn’t expect a site in northern Thailand.

According to the church’s website, the first Mormon missionary to Thailand arrived in 1854. The congregation in Chiang Mai got started in 1970. In 2009, the Mormons reported that they had 16,000 members in Thailand.

A sign for a Mormon meeting house in northern Thailand

After many trips through temples devoted to Buddhism, which remains the dominant faith in Asia, I had a greater understanding of the religion’s intentions, which, although still rather foreign to me, stress good works and conscientious, ethical living.

As the Dalai Lama, who has his own significant disputes with the Chinese government, wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal:

“Today the world faces a crisis related to lack of respect for spiritual principles and ethical values. Such virtues cannot be forced on society by legislation or by science, nor can fear inspire ethical conduct. Rather, people must have conviction in the worth of ethical principles so that they want to live ethically.”

Whatever the case, the embrace of religion among many people throughout Asia—whether Buddhist or Christian–gave me hope, particularly when the West has seen the role of faith drop precipitously over the past few decades.