Ecumenism gets boost in Indochina mission consultation
by Rebecca Asedillo
Twenty-two representatives from churches in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, and six mission partners from Hong Kong, the United States, Switzerland and Sweden made a commitment to pursue ecumenical cooperation in the coming years.
Meeting on June 23 to 27 in Siem Reap, Cambodia on the theme, "Enhancing Mission and Ecumenism in Indochina," the consultation participants shared their perspectives on doing mission within the political, economic, social and cultural contexts of Indochina and Myanmar.
While restrictions continue to exist in these countries, churches are growing rapidly. The Lao Evangelical Church, the umbrella Protestant church, reports a membership of 80,000, with over 400 congregations and 152 pastors. (In the 1990s, Laos had 25,000 Protestants and 18,000 Catholics.)
In Vietnam, baptisms are performed nearly every Sunday, according to Dr. Matthews George Chunakara, Asia Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and former staff of the joint WCC/Christian Conference of Asia Indochina Program. Chunakara also cited a Roman Catholic church in Vietnam which holds seven services each Sunday. "Churches in Laos and Vietnam are growing fast even without foreign missionaries," he observed.
The majority of Christians in Cambodia were killed during the violent reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. But as of 1997, seventy-two denominations and parachurch groups have been operating in the country, said Chunakara.
Today, while enjoying greater freedom than their counterparts in Laos and Vietnam, Cambodian Christians nonetheless find it difficult to unite around a common ecumenical agenda. Doctrinal differences, denominational rivalry, a lack of understanding of ecumenism among church leaders, and a weak organizational structure to support ecumenical endeavors were among the reasons cited by the Cambodian delegation. A leader among this group made the wry comment, "When we did not have the freedom, we had more unity."
The number of Christians is also growing in Myanmar where a military government has been in place since 1988. Within the Myanmar context, Christian faith is nurtured "from the inside," without outside intervention, according to a participant from Myanmar. "We witness to the gospel values in our daily life and ask ourselves 'how do we do mission?' in a setting that clearly favors Buddhism," he added.
Because of Christianity's link with the colonial powers, such as France, Great Britain and the United States, Christians in the region tend to be regarded with suspicion. But while the challenges they face are enormous, participants of the consultation shared their needs and aspirations for a future of ecumenical cooperation, particularly in the areas of education and service.
They are seeking support and cooperation among the churches for the establishment of pastors' formation schools focusing on church leadership and biblical and theological studies; for the production of curriculum materials; and for seminars on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue.
They pinpointed livelihood programs, the delivery of clean and adequate drinking water, health and healing ministries with particular emphasis on HIV/AIDS, and hunger alleviation programs as service areas for future ecumenical endeavors.
Finally, the consultation proposed to pursue an ecumenical initiative in the area of pastoral care and training in peace-building and conflict transformation.
The consultation was sponsored by the Christian Conference of Asia, with funding support from the World Council of Churches, the General Board of Global Ministries and the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church.
Among the United Methodist participants were the Rev. James Swanson, South Georgia District Superintendent, Mr. Liberato Bautista, Assistant General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, Ms. Rebecca Asedillo, Executive Secretary for Ecumenical and Interfaith Ministries of the General Board of Global Ministries and Pastor Sim Ten of the Cambodia Christian Methodist Association.
Date posted: Jul 31, 2002