In the January edition of the Pope Video, Pope Francis asks us to pray for Christians and religious minorities in Asia. “Let us pray for all of them”, he says so that Christians, and other religious minorities in Asian countries, may be able to practice their faith in full freedom”. He urges the respect for and protection of Christians and other religious minorities, and emphasises the importance of guaranteeing that these religious groups can live their faith with total freedom in all of the nations of the continent.
The Pope says that in the “vastly diversified cultural world” of the continent of Asia, the Church “faces many risks and her task is made more difficult by the fact of her being a minority”. According to Francis these risks “are shared with other minority religious traditions, with whom we share a desire for wisdom, truth and holiness”. He remarks that “when we think of those who are persecuted for their religion we go beyond differences of rite or confession: we place ourselves on the side of the men and women who fight to avoid renouncing their religious identity”.
With more than 16.6 million square miles, Asia is the globe’s biggest continent and contains a countless number of religious minorities. In addition to Christianity, in various countries there are Taoists, and followers of Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and others. Many of these peoples coexist peacefully, but in certain regions, there are conflicts and religious persecution.
Fr Mark Aloysius SJ, a Malaysian Jesuit, offers some background in relation to the diversity of people in Asia and the contexts in which they live. Writing for Living Prayer, a booklet produced by Messenger Publications containing reflections on the Pope’s monthly intentions, he remarks that in certain countries like Vietnam and Myanmar Christians and other religious groupings have experienced greater freedom in the practice of their religions in recent years due to the liberalisation of political and economic structures.
Fr Aloysius says that elsewhere in Asia, such as in China and Malaysia, “there has been increasing intervention by the state resulting in the diminishment of religious freedom”, and that in a number of other areas in Asia, “particularly because of the rise of Islamism, Christians experience increasing hostility and intolerance.”
Ambrose Pinto SJ is a Jesuit and Political Scientist based in Bangalore. In an article for January’s Sacred Heart Messenger magazine, he explained that Christians in South Asia are a small minority and how “political developments of the last three decades have made the Christian communities in each of these countries insecure”, adding that “the region has witnessed a wide spectrum of anti-Christian persecution and violence”.
According to Fr Pinto “the imposition of neo-liberal ideology, which has created increasing inequality in these countries”, has resulted in the prevalence of “a nationalistic fundamentalism”. He remarks that fear of minorities “is propagated to act as a catalyst for violence and riots against minorities, the marginalised and the defenders of democracy and the rule of law”, stating that “though all these countries have democratically elected governments, democracy has been misused”. `
Fr Frédéric Fornos SJ, International Director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, noted how “just a few weeks ago, the Pope visited Asia—specifically, Myanmar and Bangladesh—and while there, he emphasized how important it was that different religious creeds be able to live in peace and harmony”.
Fr Fornos remarked that “Asia is a very important continent for the proclamation of the Gospel: a continent in which people of widely diverse cultures and beliefs live together, including many religious minorities”. This is why, according to Fr Fornos, that Pope Francis has decided to dedicate the month of January to pray for the religious freedom of all.