Several factors are important to a consideration of Christian missions in Southeast Asia. First, Theravada Buddhism is an almost impregnable bastion. Secondly, the Japanese occupation resulted not only in the destruction of church and mission property but also in the wanton slaying of many church leaders and the consequent falling off in church membership. Thirdly, Christian broadcasting is not permitted in any of these six countries, though the Gospel is beamed into all of them from Manila.
Of special significance is the presence of a small but immensely influential Chinese minority, resented by the host countries but receptive to the Christian message. The East Asia Christian Conference, affiliated with the World Council of Churches, has been functioning in this area since its inauguration at Kuala Lumpur in May, 1959. In Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand there are active Christian councils under national leadership of high caliber.
American missions predominate throughout the six countries. British missions have made a significant contribution in Burma and Malaysia. Continental missions have played a very minor role. Prior to World War II there were no interdenominational faith missions in this area.
A country plagued with insurrection, bloodshed, corruption, and inflation, Burma has alternated between civilian and military rule ever since independence in 1948. Committed to socialism at home and neutralism in foreign affairs, the government has resorted to ever increasing restrictions to maintain its equilibrium. Nationalism has been particularly strong. Travel restrictions have interfered with church and mission work. Visas for new missionaries are granted only when it can be proved that no qualified Burmans are available to fill the positions.
Though freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, the government made Buddhism the state religion in 1961 and is committed to its defense and propagation. Two-thirds of Burma’s 22 million people are Buddhists. Animists number almost seven million. Of the 1,300,000 Christians, 14 per cent are Roman Catholics. The overwhelming majority of converts have come from the animistic tribes, 60 per cent of them from the Karens. Converts from Buddhism do not number more than 15,000. The Bible is now available in seven major languages.
The Baptist churches in the tribal areas are among the strongest churches in Asia. Self-supporting and self-governing, they are more than holding their own in the face of government restrictions, insurgent activities, and competition from the Buddhists. The American Baptist Mission, largest in Burma, is fully integrated with the all-inclusive Burma Baptist Convention.
Religion In Malaysia
The Federation of Malaysia, formed in 1963, comprises four former British colonies: Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (Sabah). The population of 11 million is divided among Malays (42 per cent), Chinese (38 per cent), Indians (9.6 per cent), tribes (10.4 per cent). The Malays are Muslim. The Chinese are Buddhist. The Indians are Hindu. The tribes, located mostly in the eastern area, are animist. Islam is the state religion. Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, missionary work among the Malays is prohibited by law. Only in recent years has any concerted effort been made to evangelize the 700,000 Tamils.
Some 600 new villages in Malaya, carved out of the jungle as a security measure during the civil war in 1918, presented a unique missionary opportunity. A Christian witness has been established in half of the 400 non-Muslim villages.
The Methodists, with 361 churches and 189 national ministers, are by far the largest denomination. Working in conjunction with this church are 231 missionaries from America, England, the Philippines, Switzerland, and India. Methodist schools enroll more than 70,000 students. Religious instruction is prohibited in mission schools. Moreover, only 60 per cent of the teachers are Christian. The Anglicans are the only other sizable church. Two Lutheran churches are now autonomous.
Singapore, with a population of 1,650,000, of which 76 per cent is Chinese, has scores of Christian churches. Trinity Theological College, an ecumenical institution, prepares ministers for the Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, and other denominations. Singapore Theological Seminary does the same for the more conservative churches.
After the evacuation of China in 1950, several new missions entered Malaya. The largest of these is the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, which now has 170 missionaries in more than thirty centers.
In Sarawak mass movements have taken place in recent years among the Iban and Dayak tribes. In Sabah Christians number 65,000. Of these, 36,000 are Dusan, 5,000 Murut, and 24,000 Chinese. The Borneo Evangelical Church, comprising about 200 congregations, became autonomous in 1963. The Anglicans and Plymouth Brethren also have well-established work there.
An Unproductive Field
Thailand has proved to be one of the most unproductive mission fields in this part of the world. Today, after 130 years of effort, the Protestant community totals a little more than one-tenth of 1 per cent of the population of 28 million.
Thailand is a priest-ridden country. Buddhism dominates every aspect of its life. Every male citizen is encouraged to spend at least three months in a monastery, and government employees are paid during this time. As the state religion, Buddhism is identified with patriotism. To be 100 per cent Thai, one must be a Buddhist. The people are extremely friendly and polite, and in theory there is a form of religious tolerance; but in practice embracing Christianity is considered traitorous.
The American Presbyterians have been the dominant mission in Thailand. With headquarters in Chiengmai, where they have five institutions besides a church, they have built up the largest group of Christians in the country. Known as the Church of Christ in Thailand, this church was organized in 1934. Since 1957, when church and mission were merged, Presbyterian missionaries have been known as fraternal workers. Membership is about 20,000. In 1964 this church sent out its first missionary, to the Iban people of Sarawak.
The only other mission with a significant work dating back to prewar days is the Christian and Missionary Alliance, with resident missionaries in fifteen provinces in the eastern part of the country. After several decades of gospel preaching, there are 1,200 baptized believers in about 100 congregations, most of them in the rural districts. A systematic Bible training program, with both short- and long-term schools, is helping to build a strong indigenous church.
An extremely high incidence of leprosy—one out of twenty—has prompted the missions to specialize in leprosy work. At one time the Christian and Missionary Alliance had forty clinics, but in recent years the government, with help from the World Health Organization, has taken over many of these clinics. The splendid McKean Leprosy Colony in Chiengmai has pioneered in therapeutic and rehabilitation methods.
A score of missions have entered Thailand since the war. The largest of these is the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, which now has 230 missionaries in three main areas: the tribes in the north, the Thai people in the central plain, and the Muslims in the south. Two hospitals have been opened.
Scripture distribution in 1962 reached 767,240 copies, an increase of 70 per cent over previous years. In 1964 the American Bible Society, through its Bible-a-Month Club, placed Bibles in 20,000 Buddhist temples.
In Cambodia the Christian and Missionary Alliance for many years had the field to itself. Its program included the Alliance Press, a Bible school, and, of course, evangelism and church-planting. In thirty-five years only 400 people have been baptized. The Bible in Cambodian was published in 1956. Cambodia’s flirtation with Communist China has resulted in a strong anti-American sentiment that has adversely affected missionary work. Only two missionary families remain, and they will be out by 1966.
In the war-torn kingdom of Laos, missionary work is confined to the narrow strip in the west that is still free. Three missions share the field. The largest is the Christian and Missionary Alliance, working in the north. Thousands of Christians are now found among the Khamou and Meo tribes. The Gospel Church in Laos became autonomous in 1957. Missionary Aviation Fellowship planes carry missionaries to and from isolated stations surrounded by rebel territory.
The Swiss Brethren have a church of 1,000 members based on three main stations in the south. Their work includes a Bible school and a leprosarium. The Overseas Missionary Fellowship, which entered Laos in 1958, planned a major drive to evangelize the unreached tribes in the east; but the civil war has hampered operations. A revision of the Lao Bible is in progress. Most of the Christians in Laos are from the tribes.
Incredible as it may seem, missionary work in South Viet Nam continues with comparatively little disruption. Several missionaries are being held by the rebels, and others have been killed; but the work goes on. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, largest mission in the country, reported that 1963 was a record year for baptisms. The Central Bible School at Nhatrang has the highest enrollment in forty years. A second Bible school, for tribes, carries on at Dalat. The Evangelical Church of Viet Nam, autonomous since 1927, has a baptized membership of over 25,000 and is sending its own missionaries to the tribes.
In the past decade other missions have begun work in South Viet Nam, among them the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade and Wycliffe Bible Translators.
There has been no missionary activity in North Viet Nam since the partition of the country in 1954. The indigenous church (Alliance) continues to carry on a modified form of witness under the usual restrictions imposed by a Communist regime.
T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.
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