Christianity in Asia is facing its biggest threat since the rise of communism, experts say, but its faithful masses are proving the religion’s resilience and enduring appeal by embracing underground movements and megachurches.
The region may by the “new hotbed of persecution for Christians”, as described by a watchdog group this week, but attacks, oppression and intolerance have done little to dent the religion’s popularity – in fact, the number of believers is swelling.
From a little more than 62 million Christians in East and Southeast Asia in 1970, by 2015 the number of faithful had grown to more than 266 million. The World Christian Database estimates that by 2050 there will be 431 million Christians in Asia, nearly 20 per cent of the projected population.
But nearly 140 million Christians in Asia suffered hostility last year, according to the annual Open Doors World Watch List.
Some of the worst abuses take place in North Korea, while in China, the watchdog estimated 50 million people in the country would face persecution because of their beliefs.
“Christianity in Asia faces its biggest challenge since the aftermath of the Vietnam war, which brought the rise of Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the end of the Cultural Revolution,” said Nina Shea, former head of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Under the Cultural Revolution ushered in by China’s former leader Mao Zedong between 1966 and 1976, all forms of religion were banned.
Thousands of Christian leaders were killed, imprisoned or sent to labour camps. In modern China, state-approved religious organisations are tolerated, but the ruling Communist Party – which is officially atheist – has stepped up efforts to control the practice of faith. There are complaints that the crackdown on underground churches and other unsanctioned Christian activities have intensified under the administration of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s a turning point for China, certainly, and for relations between Christians and Muslims in many countries. The last two years have been an inflection point for Indonesia and Myanmar, too,” Shea said, blaming the rise of militant atheism, radical Islam and nationalism.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, religious extremism remains a problem and many complain of a creeping Islamisation in politics, where political actors are tapping the mobilisation efforts of conservatives and hardliners to further their own interests.
Last year, a family of suicide bombers linked to Islamic State attacked three churches in Surabaya, killing 28 people. In December 2016, there was a massive movement against former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and Christian, after he used an Islamic verse while campaigning for re-election. He was convicted of blasphemy and jailed for two years.
Attacks on Christians in Myanmar, meanwhile, are commonplace. In recent weeks, a mob of 50 Buddhists attacked a group of Christians celebrating Christmas.
Experts have cited different reasons for the religion’s explosion in popularity.
“There are always some people whose desire for religion is irrepressible,” said Yang Fenggang, the founder of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.
“Christianity is distinct in providing fellowship and congregational life, which fills the void left by dissolved work units, market transition, urbanisation, and migration,” said Yang. “In short, the social changes have created the need or desire for religion among an increasing number of people, and Christian theology and community respond to the need very well.”
Others point out that persecution – beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus – is key to the Christian faith and that some Christians could see opposition to the religion as bolstering their faith.
“Persecution and the growth of religion is not incompatible,” said Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “Persecution sometimes is viewed by believers as a confirmation of the strength of their religious faith – this also results in their greater willingness to share their faith and win over adherents.”
For others, it is a matter of identity. “For many who have been Christians for generations, Christianity is as much part of their family tradition and identity as ancestor worship and Chinese folk religion are for the non-Christians,” said Francis Lim Khek Gee, a sociology professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“In other words, Christianity and its practices are considered by these believers to be an integral part of their local culture, history, identity and social memory.”
ENTER THE MEGA CHURCH
Christianity has evolved in various ways across Southeast Asia, noted Terence Chong, deputy director of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“For Singapore, it is a middle-class religion because a lot of proselytising was done on university campuses during the 1980s. This coincided with the expansion of the middle class in Singapore,” he said.
“For Indonesia, many ethnic Chinese adopted Christianity as their religion to avoid being labelled communists in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years, the ethnic Chinese have learned to use churches as nodes for professional and business networking.”
One development in recent decades sticks out above all others: the rise since the 1980s of Charismatic Christianity.
The faith is defined as an interdenominational movement from the 1960s that emphasises the emotional and supernatural – but it’s better known for house bands and megachurches.
The boom in Charismatics, an exuberant offshoot of Pentecostal Christianity, came in step with flush economic times, leading to the rise of heaving mega churches in South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia. It’s not uncommon for megachurch services to hold more than 10,000 people.
A 2011 Pew Research Centre study found there were 279 million Pentecostals worldwide. When combined with Charismatic Christians, this number hits 584 million. Today, more than 30 per cent of all Charismatics live in the Asia-Pacific region.
Juliette Koning, of Oxford Brookes University in Britain, wrote that Charismatic churches “explicitly endorse success, wealth and prosperity as expressions of both meritocratic achievements and divine approval”. She said the faith resonates well in places with a “new capitalist culture”.
Chong, of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in 2015 that “to a large extent the Pentecostal movement is driven by upwardly mobile, middle-class ethnic Chinese”. He added, however, that the appeal was not exclusive. “While the megachurch, the most popular incarnation of independent Pentecostalism, is often associated with the middle classes, it has great attraction for the poor and the working class in urban centres like Manila,” Chong wrote.
Sivin Kit, the director of the Centre for Religion and Society in Kuala Lumpur, compared a normal church to a megachurch: “It’s like going to a small shop that sells your daily needs and going to a Tesco. It’s like a family versus a company.”
“At their best, the Charismatic churches address a felt need,” he said. “Common men and women are grappling with their health or how to get better income or a better house, and the Charismatic teachings address these needs.
“A more critical reading would see it as transactional: I give you this God and you must invest. Since you are giving to God, you will be blessed materially as well. There are many Christians, myself included, who feel an overemphasis on money misses the teachings of Jesus on social justice and a life of simplicity.”
But Timothy Loh, 51, senior pastor of Every Nation Church in Malaysia, makes light of such criticism. Aside from worship services, he said his church offered counselling, services for the poor and was helping “to rebuild this nation together”.
“Long story short, after encountering God’s love, I was moved to serve Him,” said Loh, who sold a successful tech business in 2017. “So, gradually I was able to give more of my time and focus – as I do today.”
A SLOW BURN
As Christianity continues to grow in some parts of Asia, North Korea is still on lockdown. The country’s estimated 300,000 Christians face a “toxic strain of religious intolerance” that has forced the faithful to worship in secrecy, or face brutal consequences.
“Not only are underground Christians banished to concentration camps with their families if discovered in possession of a Bible, but punishments can include summary execution in some cases, since faith in the God of the Bible is, and always has been, seen as treason,” said Tim Peters, a pastor in Seoul who helps North Koreans flee their homeland through an “underground railroad”.
In some Asian countries, religious tension is a slow burn: under the social surface, but ever present.
“I’ve seen a big change since when I was a young guy,” said Brother Sam, 60, a Christian missionary in Malaysia who spoke on condition of anonymity. Sam said his work in the “mission army” included smuggling Malay-language Bibles. He said he risked going to prison “because people are so desperate”.
“We had a lot of Muslim friends and Malay friends. They would come to your home and enjoy the time with you. But for the past five or 10 years, they don’t come to your house and they don’t eat your food. It has completely changed.”
Ahmad Farouk Musa, the director of Islamic Renaissance Front, a Muslim think tank, agrees that interfaith relations aren’t “as rosy as they were in the ’60s or ’70s”.
“The relationship remains cordial among the so-called Muslim liberals and the Christians. This was apparent when Muslim liberals spoke out in defence of the Christians on issues such as Bible confiscation and conversion to Christianity. But then perhaps it is of a different mood when we look at the right-wing Muslims who were indoctrinated by the previous regime,” he said. “I guess it has somehow empowered them to show that they are the defenders of faith.”
In many countries, suspicion of Christians still runs deep. “Christians in Malaysia would be cautious if a Malay entered their church because they would be afraid of being accused of trying to convert a Muslim,” Kit said. “Many Muslims in this country look at Christians as having an agenda to convert Muslims.”
Andreas Harsono, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Indonesia, said that Christian evangelism was rising in the country, as were cases of Christians trying to convert Muslims. He said attempted conversions by Christians had occurred in “almost all regions in Indonesia from Aceh to Papua”.
Harsano said that these cases had definitely resulted in negative sentiments towards Christians, adding that this had “happened for centuries”. ■
Additional reporting by Tashny Sukumaran and Restidia Putri Ariestanti