Chiang Mai (AsiaNews) One of the smallest Churches of Asia, that of Thailand, is hosting one of the most important events for the Church's mission in the continent. Starting tomorrow and until October 22, the city of Chiang Mai will be home to the Asian Mission Congress (AMC) and its 1047 delegates representing all Christian communities in Asia as well as observers, guests and journalists from around the world.
"Telling the Story of Jesus in Asia . . . Go and tell everyone" is the topic of the congress. Its goal is to explain the value of the Catholic faith in a continent dominated by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, where Catholics are a minority. At the same time it wants to encourage Catholics to be part of the mission and spread the Good Word in a continent where many countries have banned conversion to another religion.
Delegates to the Chiang Mai meeting will represent about 100 million Catholics in a continent whose population has reached 3.8 billion, more than half of that of the world.
The Catholic Church in Asia represents about 10 per cent of Catholics worldwide but only 2.9 per cent of the Asian population. In Thailand's case, the situation is even more evident: there are only 314,000 Catholics in a population of almost 64 million (0.4 per cent).
How little Thais understand what is going on is measured by some of the comments that one can overhear. Very often, when a priest or a lay Catholic arrives at the airport or at the congress centre, one can hear: "It is meeting of the Vatican," or "They are all members of the Vatican." Local papers have also reported that the papal legate, card Crescenzio Sepe, will meet the king of Thailand.
As luck would have it, the bishops chose Chiang Mai for the meeting, in northern Thailand. This allows the delegates to steer clear of all sorts of difficulties connected with the recent coup d'état, problems that are so much more visible in Bangkok where tanks are soldiers are still patrolling the streets, as well problems caused by heavy flooding in the southern part of the country. By contrast, the weather in Chiang Mai, which is a few kilometres from the mountains, is hot and humid this time of the year.
Since the Thai Church has no facility big enough to host a gathering of more than a thousand people, the congress is being held at a hotel, the 'Lotus Pang Suan Kaew, a huge, glass and concrete building with thousands of bedrooms, restaurants, a Olympic pool, massage parlour, disco-bar and a stadium-size parking.
Each room has a Bible, in Thai and English. The sixth-floor conference room can hold more than a thousand seats and a platform for the authorities. It will also host Eucharistic celebrations. A temporary chapel hosting the Holiest during the congress will be set up in a small fifth-floor room.
Lost in a world of mass tourism, one among countless conventions held in the hotel, the AMC could go on without so much as a blip on the radar screen. What makes it special is the work of Thai volunteers teachers, students, men and women religious who welcome visitors at the airport with flower necklaces, transport delegates to and from the congress site, take care of delegates' needs from translation and meals to guided tours to the small, Thai-styled wooden churches of Chiang Mai. Many of the generous volunteers are Buddhists who have come to help out school friends.
Thailand's reputation as a place of hospitality is another important reason for holding the congress here. Tourism has opened the country's doors and not one has had to face problems coming in. Only two Pakistani Catholics from a delegation of 13 have not received a visa because their names resemble those of wanted al-Qaeda members. For this reason they have had to undergo a more thorough background check and wait longer.
The case of China is different. Officially, no bishop or believer from the pro-Communist China Church will attend. "In all these months we have waited and tried to get an answer. But nothing came," said Fr Mario Saturnino Dias, who is Indian and the AMC general coordinator.
Church members in Hong Kong said that after the recent unlawful nominations, controls over the official Church have become stricter and contacts with the universal Church have been "discouraged".
Still it might be possible that someone might arrive from China by some other means, or secretly. "We might find out more about the suffering ot the Church in mainland China from the representatives from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao", Father Dias said.
The Eastern Churches from the Middle East will also be absent, perhaps because of their very difficult situation. None the less, three Lebanese delegates will be present. They are: Mgr Antoine Nabil Andari, Maronite bishop of Jounieh; Fr Paul Karam, director of the Pontifical Societies; and Jessica Abu Haidar, a lay missionary.