Prompted by violent student demonstrations a year ago, King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev of Nepal promised a national poll to determine whether his constitutional monarchy should be replaced by a multiparty “Western style of democracy.” His government spent the next year organizing the gigantic referendum—the first in Nepal in 21 years.
The resulting May 2 vote was made difficult since transportation and communications systems are poor to nonexistent in the tiny, mountain kingdom. Ballot boxes in some instances were carried by hand down treacherous mountain trails, and in other areas helicopters transported the ballots to major towns for counting.
Observers were impressed by the turnout of 4.2 million of 7 million eligible adult voters, considering that nearly 70 percent of the population is illiterate and that many had to walk several miles to a voting place. Many were just as surprised, however, by the result of tabulations, which took 12 days. The Nepalese voted to retain their present nonparty “panchayat” system of representation, subject to new reforms, and rejected lifting the 20-year ban on political parties. The vote was seen as a virtual endorsement of one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.
Christian missionaries weren’t sure how the referendum will affect them. Yet most would be happy with even a fraction of the support for Christianity that was given Birendra—regarded by most Nepalese as the incarnation of the Hindu god, Lord Vishnu. In many respects, the spread of Christianity among the nation’s 13 million population has been as slow as its balloting process.
Hinduism is the official religion and dominant faith in the south, while Mahayana Buddhism is dominant in the Himalayan-peaked north of the country. Only about 7,000 Nepalese are Christians, and these are scattered among 70 to 80 congregations—with the largest in the capital city, Katmandu.
The national constitution states: “… the Nepalese, irrespective of religion, race, caste, or tribe collectively constitute the nation.” However, government laws prohibit conversions from Hinduism. Every new Christian faces the possibility of prosecution under the law (although sources indicate that few are jailed, since authorities don’t want other inmates to be proselytized).
While it has not been supportive, neither has the Nepalese government been particularly hostile toward Christian missions. The Bible-translating Summer Institute of Linguistics was expelled in 1976, reportedly because of several conversions. But a large number of mission agencies remain in the country. Most of these do evangelism by the example of lifestyle and through informal sharing, while being directly involved with the Nepalese government in various economic development projects. (Nepal is one of the world’s poorest nations. More than 90 percent of the population are dependent on agriculture, and the annual per capita income is less than $ 120. An estimated 70 percent are malnourished.)
The largest, and perhaps the most unique, missionary agency in the country is the 26-year-old United Mission to Nepal. The UMN is the combined effort of about 30 mission boards and agencies, with 260 personnel from at least 17 countries. These are working in nearly 20 projects (educational, medical, and economic) around the country.
The organization has a three-fold purpose: (1) to make Christ known by word and life; (2) to train the Nepalese in medical, agricultural, educational, and industrial fields; and (3) to establish the Nepalese church and strengthen its ministry. The mission has no official connection with the church; instead, missions workers participate as individuals in the local churches while encouraging leadership by nationals.
This behind-the-scenes approach reflects obedience to government restrictions. A clause in the UMN government agreement requires that UMN personnel confine themselves to “the achievements of the objectives of the project to which they are assigned and shall not engage in any proselytizing and other activities which are outside the scope of their assigned work.”
But the present UMN approach also reflects the designs of founder Robert L. Fleming, Sr., who began missions work in Nepal literally on a “wing and a prayer.” As a missionary science teacher based in Mussoorie, India, Fleming had traveled across the border into Nepal on bird-collecting expeditions. Seeing urgent physical needs there, he began taking with him doctors who did itinerant medical work. An appreciative government invited Fleming and his doctor associates to establish medical work in Katmandu and Tansen.
The missionaries and their respective Methodist and Presbyterian mission boards agreed, but desired the work to be undertaken by the ecumenical church movement and with all participants working as one mission. Biographer Grace Fletcher wrote that Fleming and his wife Bethel felt that going “with healing to Nepal” was more important than “what particular Christian creed first crossed the border.” Fleming’s philosophy was to “live the creed in deed, not words.” He frequently liked to say, “We Christians waited 2,000 years to get into Nepal. Then when the Lord was ready, he sent a bird to show the way.” (Except for a limited Catholic presence in parts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Nepal was closed entirely to Christian missions until 1950 when new King Tribhuvan led the overthrow of the ruling Rana family.)
The UMN formally organized in 1954, when 10 mission boards and agencies from India, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America came together under a single board of managers. Since then, the mission has entered a series of multiyear agreements with the government.
The government requires that UMN agree to obey all Nepalese laws, obtain permission for all new work or expansion projects, receive no government subsidies, provide training for nationals, and acknowledge the government’s right at any time to confiscate mission property and terminate the mission’s work.
Nepalese Christian journalist David Singh reports that the “impact of [the UMN’s] health and educational thrust has been singularly impressive.” For 15 years a UMN headmistress managed a first “mission” school for girls—which now has more than 600 pupils in grades I through 10. In 1974 the school was handed over to the government under its New Education Plan, and the government has recognized it as a model school upon which others can be developed. UMN health services have been a boon to Nepal, where the knowledge and means to cure are scarce.
Some missions observers have criticized the UMN social programs emphasis, and say it is more ecumenical than evangelical. However, director Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission asserted in an interview that the UMN’s inclusive structure has “allowed all kinds of evangelical missions to cooperate who otherwise would not have.”
Another criticism, reported by journalist Singh, is that UMN personnel are too tolerant of internal diversity, and expect too little commitment to the church. According to Singh, many Nepalese Christians want greater leadership from UMN workers. He supports in theory the indigenous principle, but says increased outside monetary and personnel assistance are needed to meet the urgent spiritual needs of the millions of unreached Nepalese.
He concludes: “It is now apparent that association with UMN has not contributed to the establishment of churches nor to strengthening them in their ministry, nor in providing meaningful inspiration to Christians.”
UMN officials, aware of criticisms, believe their style of ministry is a strength in a closed country such as Nepal. Frank Wilcox, UMN head from 1970 to 1976, says strong national leaders are emerging from within the Nepalese church. Since he left Nepal four years ago, the Christian population has grown from 1,500 to the present figure of 7,000. He attributes this growth to “the preaching of the gospel and the person-to-person sharing by the Nepali Christians.”
Mission agencies and personnel are hesitant about naming specific Christian leaders and projects in Nepal in order to protect their sensitive relationships with the government. The government has warned UMN officials against proselytizing once in the last several years, according to Wilcox.
Nepalese Christians may enjoy a loosening of controls if Dev’s openness to reform continues. Faced with chronic conditions of poverty and underdevelopment, the government is expected to continue seeking the participation of voluntary and Christian agencies in national development projects. At the same time, the Christian agencies hope the king gives them freedom to promote spiritual development projects of their own.
Papal Solicitude for France’s Waning Faith
On his May trip to Africa, Pope John Paul II often encountered massive turnouts. Last month he arrived at Le Bourget Airport near Paris to a more modest reception to conduct an outdoor mass. Chill weather and intermittent gusts of rain were partly to blame. Church officials had expected as many as one million to greet the Pope. Less than half that number showed up; police who surveyed the scene by helicopter estimated only 150,000. For the rest of his four-day visit the crowds remained consistently below expectation.
The Pope was well aware that the reason behind the light turnout lay deeper than the weather. (In a poll, taken before his arrival, more than 50 percent said they didn’t care if he came at all.) He lost no time in addressing the malaise at the root of the Roman Catholic church in France. In a pointed reply to President Giscard d’Estaing’s remarks, he noted that the way of the gospel “did not pass through resignation, repudiation, or abandonment.”
He reminded France of its status as the first wholly Christian nation among the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded the Roman Empire. “France, eldest daughter of the church, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism?” he asked. “Forgive me this question,” he added. “It was asked out of solicitude for the church.”
The Pope’s question went to the heart of the French religious scene. Polls and surveys in recent months have confirmed that whereas up to 85 percent of the French people are baptized Roman Catholics, 15 percent or less practice their faith at all. In some cities, less than 7 percent attend church—many of them only go to mass on Christmas Eve and Easter. Le Point magazine found that only 50 percent of the French people believe in the resurrection of Christ, 46 percent in life after death, and 45 percent in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
By 1995 it is estimated that the current, thinly spread 40,000 priests may be reduced by half again.
The historic visit was the first by a Roman Catholic pontiff in 166 years, when Pius VII spent about six years at Fountainebleu Castle as a prisoner of the Emperor Napoleon. But Karol Wojtyla (as he was often called in the French press) had visited France before, having spent time there in the Catholic Institute in 1949. He addressed the people during his visit in very passable—and sometimes eloquent—French. But the relations of Rome with France are not at all what they were under Pope John XXIII or Paul VI. Since the early death of his secretary of state, French Cardinal Jean Villot, the Pope has allowed the number of French adjutants on the Vatican staff to decrease considerably. And at the United Nations in 1979, the Pope abandoned French, the traditional diplomatic language of the Vatican, to address the forum in English.
The Pope’s rigorous schedule underscored his determination to arouse a new army of those faithful to the Catholic faith. He flew to Lisieux in Normandy where Sister Therese, a devout Carmelite nun, wrote the works that helped bring her sainthood in 1925, just 28 years after her death from tuberculosis. “Lisieux,” the Pope said later, “must become a great center of missions.” Paradoxically, Saint Therese never left the convent for missionary work.
John Paul made calls on Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, the Elysee Palace, UNESCO, and a Polish church. He attended a “watch-night service” for 40,000 young people at the Parc des Princes. And he underlined his acceptance of “Mary worship” by visiting the little-known Chapel of the Miraculous Medal, rue du Bac, where it is affirmed that the Virgin Mary appeared to a young novice several times in 1830.
But as a corps of officers is critical to an aroused army, the Pope needs leaders to share his own uncomplicated, robust faith. At Notre Dame Cathedral he spoke pointedly to his 125 bishops, using Jesus’ words, “Do you love me?” Then he lashed out in equal measure at the reformists who want to relax Catholic bans on divorce, birth control, and marriage for priests, and at the traditionalists, led by rebel French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who reject all the liberalizing measures adopted by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).
“These two extreme tendencies,” he said, “cause not only opposition but a grievous and damaging division.”
The reform-minded “progressives,” the Pope charged, want to adapt “even the content of the faith—Christian ethics, liturgy, and the organization of the church—” to “changes in mentality and to the demands of the world, without sufficiently taking into account … the essence of faith, which has already been defined since the beginning of the church.”
On the other hand, he went on, “the traditionalists are shutting themselves up rigidly in a given period of the church, and at a given moment of theological formulation [as defined at the sixteenth-century Council of Trent], or liturgical expression, which they had absolutized.” Such persons, he added, refuse to admit that “the Holy Spirit is at work today in the church with its pastors united around the successor of Peter.”
“The great majority of the Catholics in your country,” he concluded, “do not share these extreme and erroneous viewpoints.”
His observation was certainly true, considering indications that apathetic French Catholics have no viewpoint at all. Most observers expect it will take more than one papal visit to reverse the tide in France today.
ROBERT J. CAMPBELL
French Protestants Draw a Roman-sized Crowd
“All Christians into the arena!” Again the call rang out in Nimes, France, last month. But this time was different. This was a Gospel Festival and perhaps the first Christian rally to be held in the arena—once the scene of Roman gladiatorial combats, animal fights, and Christian martyrdoms—since it was built during Jesus’ lifetime. (Some 20 standing Roman amphitheaters have a larger seating capacity than this 20,000-seat arena, but Nimes is among the best preserved.)
Between 15,000 and 17,000 French believers attended, according to official estimates. Almost half were young people from 15 to 25 years old. The dominant theme, Christian fellowship, was emphasized and repeated in messages based on various aspects of the Lord’s Prayer. Musical groups from Belgium, Switzerland, and France presented a widely varying program underlining different contemporary trends, including choreography, gestures, and pantomime, in various rhythms, Though it might have become a festival of music—and music certainly was a major theme—there was frequent emphasis on Scripture readings and messages from representative Christian leaders from throughout French-speaking Europe.
The idea for the Gospel Festival, the first of its kind for France, was conceived by Pierre Courthial, dean of the Reformed Theological Seminary of Aix-en-Provence, and organized by the interdenominational monthly magazine Ichthus. Charles Guillot of Radio Evangile was an efficient, genial master of ceremonies.
Except for a two-hour rainstorm on Saturday, the audience relaxed under warm, sunny skies for the two-day gathering. Their numbers provided a singular witness to the saving power of the gospel of Christ—first brought to France about A D. 175—and placed them in the spiritual train of the apostle John through Polycarp and Bishops Pothinus and Irenaeus. It was an occasion to display evangelical strength in a land estimated to have only 50,000 evangelical Christians (or one-tenth of 1 percent of the population).
ROBERT J. CAMPBELL
Iranian Believers Utilize Precarious New Freedoms
National social upheaval is usually assumed to be a detriment to the progress of the Christian gospel. But while institutional programs characteristically are disrupted or cut back, openness to new ideas and greater leeway for person-to-person gospel witness may actually increase.
That appears to be the situation in Iran. An indication is the current distribution of Bibles and Scripture portions within this Islamic republic.
The Iranian Bible Society’s staff has been severely reduced to five persons, with a temporary supervisor. But those who remain are hustling to take advantage of their expanded opportunities. The Bible society has encountered no administrative difficulties from the authorities or other groups as a result of the revolution, said the supervisor.
“Whatever previous means of distribution were blocked,” he said, “new and better ways have opened up. Through contact with young people from the churches, several groups have been encouraged and trained to distribute Scriptures among the people. This training has not only furthered Scripture distribution, but has also been a means of reviving some of the churches.”
A visiting consultant reported, “In front of the large Tehran University our young people have been selling Scriptures. There are many different groups selling books: Marxists, Muslims, and so on. It is amazing to see the freedom in distribution. We did not have this before the revolution”
Demand has been spectacular by local standards. More than 127,000 Scripture portions were distributed during a recent three-month period (November 1979–January 1980)—up by four times over the same period the previous year. The stock of Farsi (Persian-language) Bibles was exhausted by March. Replacement shipments were beginning to arrive, however, with only routine delays. Twelve new Scripture portion or selection leaflets have been published, with five more editions scheduled for the balance of 1980.
The supervisor (who remains anonymous due to political sensitivities in Iran) explained the dramatic distribution surge simply: “At such a time people are in need of the Word of God and more than at any other time turn to it to find peace and the solution to every kind of difficulty.”
Nicaragua’s conservative Roman Catholic bishops served notice that the Pope’s ban on priests holding political office will apply there. The bishops directed a statement in mid-May toward the six priests serving in Nicaragua’s executive branch—two of them in the cabinet and one in the Council of State. The bishops had approved the priests’ participation in the new government because the country had just been through a civil war and because there were not enough trained lay people to put the new government on its feet. But now, the statement declared, “the exceptional circumstances have ended.” The priests should now “do what they were ordained for—taking care of the spiritual needs of people.”
Two national fellowships have withdrawn from the World Evangelical Fellowship because an official Roman Catholic observer participated in its general assembly in London this spring. They are the Italian Evangelical Alliance and the Spanish Evangelical Alliance. Also, the executive council of the European Evangelical Alliance has issued a resolution expressing regret that the observer was invited, and reiterating its stand against official relations with the Roman Catholic | Church by WEF member alliances.
No breakthroughs were achieved last month by the joint theological commission of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The commission, set up last November by Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrius I of Constantinople (Istanbul) met for a week on the Greek Islands of Patmos and Rhodes. The goal is healing of the 900-year-old rift between the churches, which, Dutch Cardinal Jan Willebrands declared, was the result of “sins and errors” on both sides. Areas of substantial agreement were tackled first. Three subcommissions, formed to examine such topics as the sacraments and the Trinity, will report back in two years. The critical issue of papal primacy, with its attendant Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility was deferred until later.
Britain’s Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster George Basil Hume each visited shrines of his counterpart’s church in the village of Walsingham last month. The shrines both have origins in the eleventh century, and honor Mary, the mother of Jesus. Runcie, who is the first Anglican primate in modern history to join the annual Anglican pilgrimage to its shrine, encountered demonstrators of the Protestant Truth Society and the Protestant Reformation Society who carried banners proclaiming “Walsingham no place for Archbishop,” and “No sacrifice but Calvary.”
The inerrancy debate has spread to Britain. At its annual assembly, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches revised the wording of its doctrinal basis concerning Scripture from “full inspiration” to “full and verbal inspiration” and from “reliability” to “wholly reliable in both fact and doctrine.” The reason given was that many who call themselves evangelical and “would have no difficulty in accepting our [previous] statement … teach and publish views that undermine its inerrancy.” Meanwhile, the former editor of Crusade magazine, David Winter, has published a book. This I Can Believe, which asserts that the literal interpretation of certain Scriptures, such as the story of Jonah, runs counter to the actual intentions of the Bible itself.
The “Siberian seven” completed two years of refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow last month. The two families of Pentecostal believers had rushed past the embassy guards after 16 years of trying to emigrate to the United States, and have resisted all embassy pressure to get them to leave. The U.S. government is apprehensive. More than 30,000 other Pentecostals have openly appealed to leave the country. If the Vaschenkos and Chymkhalovas succeed in leaving the Soviet Union from the U.S. Embassy, the embassy could be besieged by other applicants; mob scenes could be repeated in East European capitals as well.
A number of South African churches displayed increased militancy in May when 53 of their leaders marched through downtown Johannesburg to deliver an appeal to police headquarters. Their purpose was to protest the arrest without charge (at the time) of John Thome, a colored (mixed race) minister of the Bosmont Congregational Church. The 53—including Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and his wife, Leah—were arrested, detained overnight, charged the next day with violating the Riotous Assemblies Act, and ordered to appear for trial this month. The peaceful but illegal demonstration was the most broadly based action by socially activist denominations in the country to date.
In the early 1970s it was the West African Sahel; this year drought has struck East Africa. The United Nations World Food Council predicts that 60 million Africans—mostly women and children—will experience prolonged hunger this year. In parts of Uganda, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Southern Sudan the drought began last year. Robert Kitchen, the chief U.N. official in Kenya, says “If Kenya doesn’t have a bumper crop and Uganda doesn’t stabilize politically, this year is just a down payment on 1981 and 1982.” Northeastern Uganda is hardest hit, and since the government, convulsed by four leadership changes in 13 months, has provided little assistance, mission agencies have become the sole distributors of relief supplies.
Discovery of the plans of right-wing Jewish militants to blow up the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem led to the arrest of Rabbi Meir Kahane in May. That is the assertion—not contradicted by Israeli officials—of a Paris periodical. It reported that members of the Jewish Defense League hid explosives in the Old City in a plot to destroy the mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Islam. Kahane, the JDL founder, was jailed as a security risk without a trial. At the time, an official said he “was preparing to commit a horrendous crime,” but refused to elaborate.
Food supplies in Cambodia (Kampuchea) appear to have run out even earlier this year than in 1979. Deaths from famine are increasing. The next harvest is not due until the end of the year, and indications are that it will be small. Meanwhile, relief officials report a rapid population shift away from central and eastern Cambodia to Phnom Penh and the Thai border. Increasingly, people are coming to the Thai border not to get rice to take back to the interior but, accompanied by their families, to wait out the famine in a place where they can count on regular rations.
China’s rehabilitated Patriotic Catholic Association elected a new primate at the end of May—without any consultation with the Vatican. Bishop Zong Huaide of Jinan echoed the Communist party line but also revealed that some monasteries would be reopened. Reporting on the Catholic synod meetings—the first since 1962—the People’s Daily admitted for the first time that some Chinese Catholics had not always agreed with the policies of the government-sponsored church. Some dissident Catholics have been in jail since the 1950s, including Bishop Ignatius Gong Pingmei of Shanghai, who was convicted in 1955 for following the orders of foreigners.
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