Asian shepherds and their traumatized sheep

In its golden jubilee, there are issues that confront the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC), which has to devise intimate pastoral care that the faithful need, and now increasingly demand.

Oct 10, 2022

Catholic bishops and priests celebrate the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) culminating mass in Cebu City, Central Philippines on Jan. 31, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

By John Dayal
In its golden jubilee, there are issues that confront the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC), which has to devise intimate pastoral care that the faithful need, and now increasingly demand. The current leadership of the FABC is capable of doing it as it has some of the most well-known prelates of Asia such as the president, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar.

The people are free to interpret the theme “FABC 50: Journeying together as peoples of Asia “…and they went a different way.” (Mt 2:12).

Surely many have gone a different way. The two global synods initiated by Pope Francis in recent years have allowed sunlight to creep into many a crevice in the Asian Church. The first was a two-year investigation by the family synod into actual domestic and social life. And though it really wasn’t carried out with the integrity demanded by the subject, it was clear that domestic violence, drug abuse, and poverty posed challenges that needed to be addressed head-on.

The second, the recently concluded synodality, or walking together, was far more intense in most countries though individual dioceses applied their energies to the exercise depending on the enthusiasm of the bishop, his clergy and the faithful. Disgruntled voices, however, were perhaps fewer in number than those who felt their angst had been heard by those in authority.

It remains to be seen how the differentials of such a complex global Catholic population can be homogenized and distilled by the Roman Curia into a single document that could be useful for everyone in bringing the Church well into the middle of the 21st century.

There is a Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo in many, if perhaps not every, country in Asia. But in many countries, including India, the faithful could rather be demanding penalties on erring shepherds and clerics, unlike the Catholics defenders of the 74-year-old Timor Leste bishop who say charges of child molestation against him are a conspiracy to malign the fair name of their country.

The confrontation is sharp, and perhaps the papal representative in the remote country is not able to fully convince the people that the bishop has accepted the penalties imposed on him for “the serious crimes” he has committed. Catholics have been told their loyalty is to the Church and the Vatican, and not to a person.

India looms large in Asia, and the faithful here would be surprised at the popular support for Bishop Belo. Beset with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim fundamentalists nipping at their heels, the Indian laity lists more than its share of sexual peccadilloes of men of the cloth.

One bishop in south India is accused of having a wife and son living in a house he has built for himself. In another state in the east, a bishop is said to be blatant in his behavior. In the north, a third bishop has been exonerated by a district court of serial rape of a religious sister, but now may have to await a review in the high court. And more than one seminarian and priest faces sharp allegations of not just violating, but almost defying their vows of chastity, together with the other ones of obedience and poverty.

This has gone far beyond gossip, or sly remarks and conspiratorial murmurs. Social media and the internet have made them “in your face.” Articles are being written almost every day in various digital forums, and some very acerbic posts continue to reach the mailboxes of the heads of umbrella organizations such as the supra-Ritual Catholic Bishops Conference of India, or the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, which caters to the dioceses of the Latin Rite. Some of these mail shows that the phones of bishops, and even cardinals, are tapped and conversations recorded for later use.

The nuncios — representing the Vatican in church and state diplomacy — in countries such as India anyway face an unenviable task. With the number of dioceses creeping up towards 200, it is a tough job to do what the armed forces call a “deep search” identifying potential candidates to replace retiring bishops.

Balancing mother tongues, even castes and ethnicities, to match the profile of a language, or to find a man who would quieten a confrontation and sometimes clashes between two main population groups is a major exercise in human resource development.

Evolving strategies to stem corruption or moral turpitude should rightly weigh heavy on the bishops of Asia, much as it did once in Australia, Ireland, or North America. There, dioceses had to pay millions in hard currency in compensation or “hush money” to men and women victimized in decades past.

Also, perhaps as important is a review of relationships between the State and Church in various countries.  Barring very few countries, Catholics, and in fact, Christians of any variety are in an abysmal minority. It may be significant in numbers in India, which by now has almost 30 million Christians or more, about 20 million of them Catholics, though as a percentage of the population they may still be stuck at the 2.3 percent they were forty years ago. India is yet to carry out the decadal national census which Covid aborted last year. In other countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, it is an even smaller minority.

Barring the Philippines and Timor Leste, Christianity is a minority under stress from governments and emerging right-wing fundamentalist groups in the majority communities. In India as much as in Pakistan, these violently aggressive groups are in cahoots with government agencies and the ruling party.

Mob violence against religious minorities is the norm, rather than the exception. The rule of law is a victim in almost every single country in the region.

A most disturbing trend is the support that even warring countries extend to each other when it comes to issues of “controlling” or “managing” religious minorities in their domains. For instance, in a United Nations resolution this month against China for its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur ethnic community, India did not side with the United States which had moved the resolution but abstained. Abstention in the matter of censure against a country maltreating its minorities is tantamount to support for oppression, if not genocide.

India’s own record is terrible. Its human rights and religious freedom situation is up for a look in the four-yearly Universal Periodic Review by the UN’s Human Rights system in Geneva. Every country must undergo this periodic review, and it is not as if India or anyone else is being singled out. But the government and majority groups’ pressure on Muslims, Christians, and civil society groups, has invited adverse attention. India has used its diplomatic skills to try to brush off allegations of persecution, arrests of civil rights activists and curbs on freedom of expression, but some of the allegations have stuck.

Much as India, Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Buddhist majority countries such as Sri Lanka, are not known for nurturing environments for their religious minorities, especially Christians.

Pakistan is a terrible place for Christian girls who are abducted and married off to Muslim men. Blasphemy laws are used to demonize Christians and confiscate their properties or businesses. “Blasphemy” is punishable by death. Murder by the religious state, some would term it.

China is the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to terrorizing its religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. While Muslims are concentrated in a few regions, underground churches exist and are expanding in several regions. Many of them are Catholic. Catholic or Protestant, they invite very adverse government attention.

Observers feel that over the years, the Vatican has not been able to do much more than make sporadic gestures of protest. The West, despite its pretense of protecting religious freedom across the globe, or at least supporting it in international fora, has bowed to the behemoth that China is in international industry and trade.

“The Church is looking for new ways to continue serving the people and peoples of Asia; let us walk together to reflect, imagine, participate, and rediscover a new way of being a church in Asia,” Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi who is president of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan told Radio Veritas Asia recently.

The sheep would surely wish their shepherds good luck. But perhaps the flock in South Asia is not expecting miracles just at

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