LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Although often happening under the radar of the world media, a new report says persecution against Christians is getting worse in many parts of Asia, calling it a “regional hot spot.”
The 2019 Persecuted and Forgotten? report from Aid to the Church in Need is warning that an “unholy trinity” of threats is facing Christians on the world’s most populous continent: Authoritarian regimes, Islamic extremism, and popularist nationalism.
Pope Francis has said that Asia would be a priority in his pontificate, and he will be visiting the region again next month, when he visits Japan and Thailand in November. The pontiff has spoken about a desire in his youth to serve as a missionary in Asia, but he never got the opportunity with the Jesuits.
His visit will highlight two countries in Asia where miniscule Catholic populations live in peace with non-Christian majorities. The Catholic Church makes up less than 1 percent of the population in both Japan and Thailand – each country has about the same number of non-Christians – yet the Church is known for its outsized influence in areas of social welfare and education both in the G7 member Japan and still developing Thailand.
Thailand is majority Buddhist, and the Christian population is concentrated in the poorer rural areas, especially among the country’s ethnic minorities. The religious background of the Japanese is eclectic – most would identify with the indigenous Shinto religion, although a third of the country says they are Buddhist, which has also left its imprint on Shinto beliefs.
Francis will want to hold these two countries up as models for their neighbors, where the “unholy trinity” of the Aid to the Church in Need report says that the religious majority often sees the continent’s Christian population as a threat to their power.
Anti-Christian persecution has long been a problem in authoritarian communist countries in the region: North Korea is considered to be the worst place on Earth to be a Christian, and the communist parties in China and Vietnam try to keep their local churches under the thumbs of apparatchiks.
However, anti-Christian persecution is moving beyond the Cold War hot spots to new frontiers.
Islamism, once most prominent in the Middle East and North Africa, is growing in Asia. Even the Philippines – one of only two majority-Catholic countries in the region, the other being East Timor – has seen an upsurge in violence after a relative calm following a peace deal with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The militant group Abu Sayyaf, which is affiliated with the Islamic State group, set off two bombs in the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo in January, killing 20 people and injuring 100 others.
Of course, the most famous prominent Islamist attack was the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka which left over 250 people dead, and 500 others injured. Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country with a large Hindu minority, split largely along ethnic lines. That Islamist groups were able to organize such a complicated operation in the country was a testament that they are increasingly able to operate outside of the Muslim-majority countries where they have been most active against Christians, such as Pakistan.
The rise of nationalism in Asia – often with a religious component – is most prominent in India, where the Hindu BJP party just won reelection by an overwhelming majority. Christians and other religious minorities often suffer discrimination and harassment, made worse by the fact that most Christians come from the more marginalized members of Hinduism’s caste system.
Myanmar, which elected its first civilian government in decades in 2015, has seen an upsurge of Burmese nationalism, with a strong backing by the country’s Buddhist establishment. Although the Muslim Rohingya community has suffered the most, the government is still warring with militias from ethnic minorities that are predominantly Christian.
This is where Francis’s trip itinerary could prove to be a masterstroke.
Thailand has seen an upsurge of nationalism in recent years, but it hasn’t really targeted religious minorities.
Japan is a country which saw horrible anti-Catholic persecution in the 17th century, which was featured in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film “Silence,” based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō.
It has over the past decade or so seen the rise of populist politicians, and although Japanese conservatism is often intertwined with Shintoism, it has not targeted the country’s Catholic minority.
In fact, the conservative deputy prime minister of Japan, Tarō Asō, is a Catholic. Asō even served as prime minister himself for a year a decade ago.
Proof that the “unholy trinity” attacking Christians – with a little luck – can be defeated.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
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