Vatican City (APA) – For the second time in his still short tenure, Pope Francis sets off next week for distant Asian countries. After his visit to South Korea last summer, he is touring from 12. Until 19. January Sri Lanka and the Philippines, as Kathpress reports.
The impression seems to be true that he wants to give more weight to the Catholic Church on the most populous continent. A growing minority in most zones of the continent, especially the economically emerging ones. Almost everywhere in Asia, it faces major political and cultural challenges.
During his pastoral visits, Francis is now meeting with two very different local churches. Both go back to the missionary activities of European colonial powers in the 16. Century back. Asia's Catholics rank low in church statistics. Just 3.2 percent of the continent's four billion inhabitants are Catholic, compared to 18.6 percent in Africa, 40 percent in Europe and 63 percent in America.
Admittedly, almost nowhere in the world has the church recently grown as much as in Asia. Today, one in ten Catholics lives there, a total of 134 million. And besides some hindrances and persecutions, many local churches present themselves as vital and dynamic in the giant continent with its most diverse cultures and social models.
That partly explains why Pope Francis has made Asia a geographic focus of his pontificate. Another reason is certainly its affinity with the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who came to Beijing 400 years ago. The latter's words about his coming from a distant land had already been quoted by Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on the evening of his election. Finally, a third motive is the desire of the young Jesuit Bergoglio to go to Japan. In preparation, the novice in Argentina at the time had devoured the books of the provincial in Tokyo, Pedro Arrupe – later a legendary Jesuit general.
As early as the first millennium, Christianity was also present in Central and East Asia from its ancestral regions in the Middle East. The St. Thomas Christians in India even refer to foundations by the eponymous apostle of Jesus. In the Mongol Empire in the early 14. Century 30.000 Catholics, who admittedly soon disappeared without a trace. Latin Christianity essentially arrived in the early 16. In the 17th century, the great religious orders spread to Asia, through Franciscans, Dominicans and above all Jesuits, through missionaries such as Matteo Ricci or Franz Xaver.
Of course, the Christian missionaries also followed the colonial masters from Spain and later from the Netherlands, France and England in doing so. For a long time, this colonial mortgage burdened the situation of Christians, making them appear as foreigners, followers of an exotic sect from Europe.
Moreover, the inculturation of Christianity into the evolved advanced cultures and religious traditions in Asia was usually less successful than in other parts of the world. In China or Korea, Christians' strict no to state-related rites such as the worship of ancestors or Confucius in the 18. and 19. The twentieth century brings severe persecution. Over the past 50 years, Asian Catholics have made the transition from Euro-centric mission churches to independent local churches, most with their own hierarchy.
Apart from the majority Catholic states of the Philippines and East Timor, Catholics are a minority everywhere in Asia. But as different as their situations are, there are also similar challenges: Strengthening fundamentalist currents in Islam are making life difficult for Christians in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. In India, radical Hindus are gaining influence, and in Sri Lanka, fundamentalist Buddhists are speaking out.
The Catholic Church in South Korea experienced a special "success story". During military rule in the 1970s and 1980s, the church and its Cardinal Stephen Kim were among the harshest critics of political grievances in the country, which strengthened their reputation. Less straightforward was the catholic development in Japan. After a considerable upswing after the end of the war, the number of members stagnated at around 550.000, just 0.4 percent of the total population.
The ecclesiastical situation in the People's Republic of China is still unclear today, with around 12 million Catholics. After Mao Zedong's victory, Christians were seen as potential counterrevolutionaries. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the Catholic Church was particularly harshly persecuted. Since the 1990s, the lines between Rome-loyal and state-permitted "patriotic" churches have been blurring, and they are becoming more mutually permeable.
In Sri Lanka, the first leg of the pope's upcoming trip, less than 10 percent of the population of about 20 million are Catholics, while the vast majority of the 100 million Filipinos belong to the Roman Church. The former Spanish, then U.S. colony that gained independence in 1946 remains by far the most Catholic Asian country.
In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the not infrequently nationalistic Buddhism of the Sinhalese majority dominates over the mostly Hindu Tamils. The decades-long, murderous civil war between the two ethnic groups ended in 2009 with the complete subjugation and continued oppression of the Tamil minority. Sri Lanka remains a torn country; hopes for impetus of reconciliation from pope's visit are high.
The church, to which both Sinhalese and Tamils belong, has always acted as a mediator in the conflict, but continues to struggle with the image of an institution controlled from the outside. Francis faces a political tightrope walk in Sri Lanka.
In any case, his visit to Asia is likely to attract widespread attention in the world region, especially since its major powers, India and China, are watching developments in both travel destinations very closely for economic and security reasons.