Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Battle of the Billions

As Christianity reaches for China and India, a struggle is intensifying

They make up half of humanity: 1.27 billion Chinese, a billion Indians and over 1 billion Christians. For 2,000 years the three populations have shared Eurasia, peacefully for the most part, even with the half-millennium of major intrusions into Asia by Europeans seeking converts, commerce and colonies. Despite centuries of interaction, however, only 2% of people in China and India are Christian, and Chinese and Indians are a tiny fraction of Jesus's followers.

This largely peaceful equilibrium looks set to end, if certain forces resurgent in recent years continue to strengthen. With this month's tiff over the Vatican's canonization of 120 saints martyred in China, frictions are intensifying between Chinese rulers and the Catholic Church. Late last year it looked as if the most populous nation and the most widespread faith were reconciling. Expelled from the mainland in 1951, the Vatican's embassy was set to return from Taipei to Beijing, if China would stop persecuting "underground" Catholics loyal to the Pope. But in February the Chinese ordained five new bishops in the officially approved Patriotic Church, irking Rome. Then came arrests of underground Catholics, including a bishop and priests, and the Oct. 1 canonization, which, to China's anger, coincided with the anniversary of the People's Republic.

Beijing's fear of entities that could publicly challenge its supremacy, revived by a 17-month-old challenge from the Falungong quasi-Buddhist sect, is one oft-cited reason for its crackdown on the underground church. But there are more fundamental factors. Chinese leaders still remember how the Catholic Church helped undermine communist regimes in Europe, particularly in the Pope's native Poland. In fighting for justice and rights, Christian clergy and groups have opposed rulers across the globe, including Hong Kong's over the right of abode for mainlanders. So even setting aside the still-common view that Christianity is a Western imperialist plot, Beijing harbors plenty of fears over a resurgent Church.

In India, the authorities have generally tolerated Christianity, even the present government dominated by the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party. But Hindu chauvinists like the RSS and Shiv Sena groups backing the BJP, have opposed Christian missionary work. Many were stung by the Pope's call for more efforts to spread Catholicism during his visit last year. Anti-Christian campaigns, which can turn violent, intensified recently when a Sister of Charity, part of a Calcutta-based religious order founded by the late Mother Teresa, allegedly burned the hands of four street children caught stealing. Hindu rightists accuse missionaries of using charity work as a ploy to lure the poor and underprivileged to Christianity.

With the Church pushing aid and advocacy for the poor as a tenet, there are bound to be more conflicts between Christians and vested interests in India and China. Add to that Rome's vision of making Christianity's third millennium the Asian one (the first two saw Europe, Africa and the Americas converted). Not to mention the expected anti-foreign backlash to globalization. Unless millennia of statecraft temper the true believers all around, the Battle of the Billions may have begun.

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