WAITANGI, NZ -- A proliferation of Protestant denominations and a very different style of outreach has muddied the waters of interdenominational and interfaith understanding in many Southeast Asian countries.
At Building Bridges, the third Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue held at Waitangi last week, Catholic priests from three Asia-Pacific countries explained how the Catholic Church has found a niche alongside the Governments of their countries, but the Protestant, and particularly
Pentecostal movements are drawing in the youth.
Cambodian Catholic Bishop Bruno Cosme said that with 40 different denominations in Cambodia, it was not easy for the Government to know who to speak to. But the Catholic Church was known.
“That is why it is Catholic delegates who have been selected to represent the Christian Church in Cambodia at the interfaith dialogue,” he said.
“The Minister of Cults and Religions doesn’t know who else to talk to. We have a good relationship with the Government and there is a French Catholic heritage here.”
Monsignor Yoseph Sahadat, chairman of the interfaith commission of Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Indonesia and Catholic bishop of Malang, East Java, echoed Bishop Cosme’s impressions.
Indonesia had by far the largest delegation of 21. Most of the delegation were Government officials, with representatives of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Confusianist faiths, one Protestant and Msgr Sahadat representing the Catholic minority.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. Of the 230 million, six million are Catholic and eight million Protestant.
“We are free to worship where we like,” said Msgr Sahadat. “But it is not easy to build new churches in Indonesia. The opposition doesn’t come from the Government, but from the people in the villages. We have good regulations from the Government.”
However, the Government did require religions to have a state permit to operate as a church. Some local government representatives give these permits easily but others did not.
“In one area it took us 10 years to get a permit,” said Msgr Sahadat. “Some people are afraid of the influence of the Catholic and Protestant churches.
“Church education and social programmes are the best in the country. We have 17 excellent Catholic universities and the Protestants also have famous universities.”
Msgr Sahadat said the Catholic Church in Indonesia had moderately good relationships with the Protestant churches, but found the Pentecostal stream too aggressive and provocative.
They were seen by some as similar to the 7 per cent of Muslim radicals.
“But they seem to bring in the young people,” he said. “The Pentecostal church has been growing in Indonesia and all over South-east Asia in the past 10 years. They are making the Gospel very attractive to the young people. But the Catholic Church focuses on deepening people’s faith.”
Msgr Sahadat said the Catholics had no difficulty working with Muslims in East Java, but that wasn’t the case throughout Indonesia.
“We need to clarify that interfaith dialogue also happens in Indonesia,” he said. “We promote ecumenism in the Church but it is still limited.”
In Papua New Guinea, a country with a population 90 per cent Christian, the problems are quite different.
Catholic Archbishop Sir Brian Barnes, the delegate representing the Catholic Church, said the biggest issue for the church in his country was getting to know the other faiths.
“There is a certain amount of working together with other Christian groups but not with the other minority faiths,” he said.
The Church in Papua New Guinea was taking a leading role in commenting on politics.
“The media are supportive of these comments on how we should run our country,” he said.
The members of Parliament were nearly all Christian but corruption was rife and the Church was speaking out freely on this.
“The church questions the corruption in the politicians and public servants,” he said.
“Crime is another problem. It is important for the Church to say something. It’s important for the church leaders to speak out for the people. Politicians react strongly and say, ‘Keep to your pulpit’, but you can’t divorce politics from life.”
Referring to the rally organised by Destiny Church to protest alleged eroding of the Christian position in New Zealand society, Archbishop Barnes said it would be a pity if the Christian tradition in New Zealand was lost.
Secular influences were also creeping into Papua New Guinea but there were not many people promoting these.
© 2007 ASSIST News Service, used with permission
Original publication date June 7, 2007