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.
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.
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.