January 2018: Religious Minorities in Asia


by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ

Pope’s Prayer intention:

“Religious Minorities in Asia. That Christians, and other religious minorities in Asian countries, may be able to practise their faith in full freedom.”

There are clearly some problem countries that Pope Francis has in mind. The forced expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya minority from Myanmar would be one. His diplomatically difficult visit to both Myanmar and Bangladesh last year, was a courageous gesture of solidarity with a minority which seemed to have been left defenceless.

North Korea, where any form of faith other than atheism is suppressed, would be another place where religions, any religions really, are marginalised and actively persecuted by an atheistic state led by a rather bizarre and insecure young dictator.

Nor should we should forget the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines where there is a substantial Muslim minority, some of whom say that they want more political autonomy. Not that the Philippines is quite in the same category of dictatorship as North Korea, even though the present strongman, Mr Duterte, is hardly a strong supporter of human rights or Catholic social teaching!

What these complicated Asian situations underline is that everyone is a minority somewhere and a majority somewhere else. Hindus are a minority in Pakistan even though they are an overwhelming majority in India. Buddhists are a minority in India, even though they are in the majority in Myanmar. Christians are a minority in all Asian countries except in the Philippines.

One would think, therefore, that because organised religions in Asia all feel the burden of oppression where they are minorities, they would be more sensitive to other minorities where they are a majority. Often it is not so unfortunately. There is a human tendency to take out our vicissitudes of minority status in one place by pushing around other minorities in places where we are a majority. A lesson all faiths everywhere have to learn is how not to be bullies where they are strong and secure. We need to get together and agree that we will uphold and protect each other’s rights across the geographical board.

It sounds simple but there are a couple of complications. Firstly, there are politicians, especially in this age of thug-like leaders, who are quite happy to exploit religious differences for their own political advantage. Here we believers have to show real greatness of soul and rise above the destructiveness and divisiveness of identity politics.

Secondly, there is the reality of competition. We must frankly acknowledge that competition is a fact of our religious faith. For some faiths, especially Christianity and Islam, adherents have the duty to bear witness to and spread our beliefs and way of life. It is part of our Christian Gospel that God has commissioned us to preach to the unconverted and bring in new believers and the same is true for Muslims. This puts us in competition with each other and it adds to the temptation to restrict the freedom of other faiths when they are in a minority and cry foul when we ourselves are restricted.

What our pluralistic religious world needs, therefore, is an agreement, tacit or formal, that all faiths have the freedom to propagate themselves within the limits of respect for human rights and the good order of society. We need rules for this competition.

We also need a kind of referee and in practice that referee will have to be the secular state. We may not like that very much, but it is probably the only reasonable referee we will get who will be able to prevent any ‘foul play’.

Of course, this means that, as believers, we will have to work out a positive theology of the secular state. The theological leap is to consider the possibility that God has the power to work through secular rulers. We can look to Isaiah and the startling reflection on how God was at work through the Persian imperial rulers.



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