The Pope’s Pivot to Asia

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The Pope’s Pivot to Asia

Why Southeast Asia is featuring prominently in the Catholic Church’s agenda.

In a December 30 interview, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio that Pope Francis’s increased attention to Asia reflected the region’s status “one of the great frontiers” of the Catholic Church.

“Very important is the frontier of Asia… [t]hese great trips of Pope Francis reflect the Church’s renewed attention to this predominant portion of humanity of today and tomorrow,” Lombardi said, referring to the Pope Francis’s past visit to South Korea and upcoming ones to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

His comments attest to Pope Francis’s focus on Asia – a continent his predecessor did not visit – as part of a broader effort to both reach out to the developing world where Catholicism is growing faster and to demonstrate solidarity with the difficulties smaller dioceses face. Southeast Asia is proving to be a critical part of this two-pronged agenda in 2015.

The Pope’s visit to the Philippines, which houses the world’s third largest Catholic population, from January 15-19 will focus on the former objective. Here, he will experience what Lombardi called Asia’s “impressive human presence,” where more than 80 percent of Filipinos – over 75 million people – belong to the Catholic Church compared to a regional average of just 3 percent of Asians.

The country has been feverishly preparing for the Pope’s visit for weeks, with roads closed, flights suspended, holidays declared and security tightened during his time in the country.

“So there is room for enlarging the number of Christians, and obviously that’s a very nice spot to start – from the Philippines, which is a Catholic country,” deputy Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini told the Philippine news outlet Rappler in September 2014.

Data indicate that over the past century or so, Europe’s share of the world’s Catholics has declined from 65 percent to 24 percent, with much of that being rapidly made up in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific whose percentage more than doubled from 5 percent (14 million) to 12 percent (131 million) during that period.

Pope Francis is also giving greater attention to countries in Southeast Asia where Catholics are a minority and face persecution, thereby drawing attention to what Lombardi called “very varied cultural, social and political situations” in Asia that make religious practice “very difficult.”

His recent cardinal appointments are proof of this. Of the 20 new members from around the world nominated as cardinals on January 4, three are Asian, and all three of those are from Southeast Asia – specifically Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. For Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country which houses around 500,000 Catholics, this is historic because it is the first time a cardinal has ever been appointed from the country.

Myanmar’s inclusion comes at an interesting time, with the country poised to hold elections later this year following a historic opening that has also given rise to hate speech and violence by Buddhist nationalists against other ethnicities and religions – most prominently Rohingya Muslims but also others including the predominantly Christian Kachins.

The Catholic Church has been paying close attention to the country’s evolution. It finally decided to hold its belated jubilee celebrations marking 500 years in Myanmar from 2013-2014 in the country’s relatively more open environment. But it has also stressed its solidarity with opposition voices in promoting greater development and democracy there, as evidenced by Pope Francis’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in the Vatican in October 2013.

Vatican officials say that Pope Francis’s focus on Myanmar both highlights his commitment to Asia and exemplifies his fondness for small churches which face challenges. Those challenges are quite significant in Myanmar, and it is no coincidence that the cardinal chosen – Charles Maung Bo – is one of the leading advocates seeking to overcome them.

Writing in The Washington Post last June, Bo argued that “if Burma is to be truly free, peaceful and prosperous, the rights of all ethnicities and religious faiths must be protected.”  Benedict Rogers of the British-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide described Bo as “one of the most outspoken religious leaders in Burma on issues of human rights, religious freedom… and other injustices.”

Vietnam’s inclusion is not nearly as unprecedented as Myanmar’s: Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon is the third cardinal to be appointed from the country since the end of the Vietnam War nearly four decades ago, and takes over from Cardinal John Baptist Pham Minh Man who retired last year.

But the country’s growing Catholic population, now at 6 million (roughly 7 percent of the population), also faces religious restrictions there. In its 2014 country report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said that despite the easing of some restrictions, the Vietnamese government was still seeking to stem the rise of Catholicism through “discrimination, violence and forced renunciations.”

Some say the Nhon’s appointment may be a further boost to ties between the Vatican and Hanoi, which have not had diplomatic relations since the end of the Vietnam War but have been inching towards a historic normalization over the past few years. Pope Francis has previously sent signals of goodwill to Asian nations with which the Vatican does not have diplomatic ties.

Despite Pope Francis’s apparent pivot to Asia, the Wall Street Journal notes that even with the new cardinal appointments, Asia’s share of voting-age cardinals is merely commensurate with its share of the world’s Catholics, while Europe’s share of voting-age cardinals is around twice its share of the Catholic population. That disparity suggests the Catholic Church’s goal to expand its efforts to the developing world – notable as it is – still has a long way to go.