Evangelization: Religious Minorities in Asia
For the past forty-five years I have lived in countries dominated by other religions; five years in mostly Buddhist Bhutan and then forty years here in mainly Hindu Nepal. Easy? Yes and No.
I look different than the local people, standing out in photographs as too tall and light skinned. While able to make myself understood in the local languages, I’m hardly a fluent speaker, a terrible writer, and cannot get my tongue around some sounds. I’ve grown to expect that others will not understand me until I’ve tried several ways to get a point across, and expect muffled or outright laughter when I speak.
I am, and hopefully appear to be, a devout Christian. People are wary of missionaries bearing the cross once conquers have come with the sword. Local people are rightly proud of their religion entwined into the local cultures. They are respectful and do not want me to join their religion, but insist that I do not interfere with their religious and cultural practices. I may worship in my own way, and other Christian foreigners are welcome to worship with me, but I must not try to convert others.
The local people see me as a privileged foreigner here to help, in my case to help provide good education for their children.
Fr. Bill Mackey moved to Bhutan in 1963 to do just that, and over the next thirty-plus years, with Bill’s enthusiastic help, the Bhutan school system developed well.
In 1951, Fr. Marshall D. Moran, of the Patna Jesuit Mission, started St. Xavier’s School on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley.
Both men used their diplomatic skills to convince their Hindu and Buddhist hosts that better education was a need. Both lived up to their promises to follow the constraints their hosts imposed.
Two decades ago Fr. John Bingham (Jamshedpur) and Fr. Mike Parent (Darjeeling) moved to Tibet to study and run a book store. John has passed away but Mike has continued, and for the last decade has worked with “Braille Without Borders,” helping blind Tibetan boys and girls get a basic education and learn farming skills.
Our missions in Tibet and Bhutan are now administered by their respective governments. Catholic missionaries in Nepal continue good work, but under the watchful eye of their hosts.
There are local religious minorities in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal. I cannot speak for them but think that as long as they practise their faith in a politically and culturally non-threatening way, they can live in peace and harmony with citizens following the majority’s religion.
Certainly all is not perfect. There is religious prejudice in Nepal. Yet many religious leaders have joined one another to work for the country’s development and for religious harmony. It has been a privilege for me to do my little bit in working with them.
What has made life easy in Nepal? Hopefully my good attitude towards all people. I’ve enjoyed taking part in Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist ceremonies when invited, and have made some effort to understand their faiths. I have provided what services I could, working with, rather than for, my hosts.
Nepal is changing with the hope that our new constitution will force governments to be responsible to the people. Religious demography will change, as more people become Christian and some others immigrate to escape persecution elsewhere. Corruption and inefficiency are endemic, but the wonderful Nepali virtue of friendly acceptance will carry Nepal in the right direction.
For a very interesting video reflection by Bill Robins SJ, on his life and work in Nepal click here.
With Pope Francis, we pray that Christians, and other religious minorities in Asian countries, may be able to practise their faith in full freedom.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are courtesy of Bill Robins, SJ.