10/20/2006, 00.00
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Asian Mission Congress: Leaving ghettos, Christians in dialogue with other religions

by Bernardo Cervellera

The second day of the congress has been dedicated to testimonies and dialogue with Asian religions. Models upheld were: John Paul II Francis Xavier, John of Montecorvino, Matthew Ricci, and Robert de Nobili. Some converts shared their testimony.

Chiang Mai (AsiaNews) – The second day of the Asian Mission Congress (AMC) started pretty early, at 6am (1am at night in Italy). Today's theme was "The Story of Jesus in the Religions of Asia", to understand the way in which Christ "speaks" to followers of great world religions, in their values and sacred books, what the Fathers of the Church and the Council described as "the seeds of the Word". But it also aimed to draw attention to the ways in which Christ offers fullness of life to other religions.

In the big hall full of people – a bit sleepy – we watched a drama performance of the Lauds prayer. Playing on the binomial God-Light, it dealt with creation, the light that pours into the creature, and religions that appreciate elements of reality as symbols of a greater Light. A group of Thai dancers entered the dark hall, carrying lamps. Then it was the turn of the "light of the Law", with some young people, in costumes, carrying a chest, a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant. And finally, there was the light of Christ, with a deacon holding up high a paschal candle. A psalm corresponded to each part of the performance, until the Benedictus that proclaimed the coming of Jesus "as the sun that shines from on high".

The staged simple theology gave way to Mass, presided over by Cardinal Michai Kitbunchu archbishop of Bangkok. The sermon was preached by Mgr George Yod Phimphisan, bishop of Udonthani (north-east Thailand). Referring to Ecclesia in Asia, Mgr Yod, urged the faithful to "discover many things we have in common with religions", for dialogue "in a peaceful manner". But he also urged everyone not to live in an "isolated world" and to take up the responsibility of "being the face of Christ for Asia".

The "ghetto" temptation is widespread in Asia, especially because of the pervasiveness of great world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam) that have moulded the culture of many Asian countries for millennia and centuries. The sense of being in a "minority" and the fear of being branded with "proselytism" often leads to fear of proposing Christianity to anyone or even of declaring oneself to be Christian. In just one example, hundreds of Catholics in Thailand leave the Christian faith each year after they marry a Buddhist husband or wife. They opt for silent tranquillity rather than dialogue and witness within the family.

The cultural clout of great world religions prompted many Asian theologians to come up with theories that excluded mission and proclamation, relativising Christian salvation, enthroning other religions as "ways to salvation" alongside and equal to the "Way" that is Jesus Christ. To remedy this confusion, in 2000, the pope – with the help of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger – published a declaration Dominus Jesus that reaffirmed Jesus as the only universal saviour and the Church as the place of salvation. The document met with discreet resistance from some theologians in Asia (India and Sri Lanka).

Even if not too elaborately, Mgr Yod suggested to the congregation that they meet, get to know, appreciate, share and collaborate with members of other religions. As an example, he cited John Paul II who "sought to meet leaders of these religions and dialogue with them… At this funeral, many of their representatives went to pay him homage. Something like this never happened before".

However he also proposed following the example of great saints and missionaries of the past: Francis Xavier, John of Montecorvino, Matthew Ricci, Robert de Nobili, experts of cultures and religions but also people on fire "with love for Christ... to make him better known, to love him deeply and follow him more closely".

To win over the "ghetto" temptation, Christians should realize that "Christ speaks in other religions". This was confirmed by some testimonies that followed during the day. The first was that of a Muslim from Bangladesh, Abdus Sabur, secretary of the "Asian Muslim Action Network", an international Muslim development organization. Sabur spoke about his collaboration with other Christians, who are often "closer to the poor compared to Muslims". He also recalled the readiness and faithfulness of Christians towards tsunami victims, being among the first to rescue them and still now accompanying and helping them.

Fr Jean Tanaka, who is Japanese, talked about his experience in researching Buddhism, which eventually led to his conversion and his vocation as a Dominican priest.

Then it was the turn of an Indian who converted from Hinduism. Aravindaksha Menon comes from a Brahmin family. He lost his job and consequently, his family was reduced to begging. He sought the meaning of his sorrow by praying in Hindu temples but got no response. After overcoming the temptation of suicide for himself and his family, he came across a "prophecy" while studying the Rig-Veda, a sacred Hindu text, which talked about a man (Prajapati, son of God), who had borne the evil of the world. It was a Brahmin priest who informed him that "only Jesus is the incarnation" of this prophecy. So Aravindaksha Menon became a Christian and is now a lay preacher in the Charismatic movement.

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, president of the Indian Bishops' Conference, told the story of the conversion of his village of origin, Chotanagpur, and about how today, hundreds of thousands of tribals are Catholics, priests and members of religious orders.

One point that has not been tackled as yet is inter-religious conflict. Here at the AMC, everyone fears that sectarian conflicts (India, Pakistan, Middle East, South-east Asia, and so on…) are setting Asia aflame. But all hasten to add that these clashes have "only political" motivations and are nothing to do with spiritual traditions. Another aspect that is missing is criticism and "purification" of religions: "appreciation" of the values lived by members of other religions, is emphasised and suggested, but as yet there is too little reflection on their limitations, mistakes and distortions.

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See also
Mission Congress in Chiang Mai: the small flock bears witness that "Jesus is Asian"
Asian Mission Congress: transforming Asian cultures with daily faith
Asian Mission Congress: martyrdom, mission, mandate of the Cross
Thailand to host Asian Mission Congress
Asian Mission Congress: Asia Catholics open to the world


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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”