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More temples than churches in Taiwan

Outnumbered Catholics hold their own on island

A Taoist-temple-like Catholic church in Yenshui, Tainan diocese: All characters of the Holy Trinity and the Last Supper at the altar are Chinese in appearance A Taoist-temple-like Catholic church in Yenshui, Tainan diocese: All characters of the Holy Trinity and the Last Supper at the altar are Chinese in appearance
  • Francis Kuo, Taipei
  • Taiwan
  • July 8, 2011
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New statistics from Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior show it to be one of the most pluralistic countries in the world in terms of the religious beliefs it hosts.

There are 27 registered religions, ranging from globally established faiths like Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam, to Taoism, folk beliefs, minority religions and sects such as I Kuan-tao and Mormonism.

The number of adherents is also relatively high. In a country with a population of around 25 million, there are 989,360 names registered at temples and nearly 580,000 registered in Christian churches.

Interior minister Jiang Yi-huah claims the statistics show that Taiwan is rare in the world. “They not only demonstrate our pluralistic and tolerant culture, but also show that different religions cherish mutual respect for each other,” he said.

However, one scholar has pointed out an imbalance which makes it difficult for people in Taiwan to come to Christianity.

There are 11,875 registered temples for Buddhists, Taoists and folk religions, but less than 3,336 church venues and less than a quarter of those are Catholic. So temples outnumber churches by three to one.

“Local Taiwanese are conservative in nature and strict in observing traditional customs, so it is hard to convert them,” says Professor John Baptist Chuang of Fu Jen Catholic University. “In contrast, it is easier for migrants from the mainland to accept a new religion in an alien place.”

“Catholicism was introduced to Taiwan 151 years ago, but only boomed after 1949 when China’s Nationalist government fled from the Communists to Taiwan and many Chinese and foreign clergy were also expelled,” says Chuang, who is head of the Institute of Religious Studies.

Though the Catholic Church is smaller in scale than other religions here, Chuang points out that Buddhism is a term that embraces the Hinayana, Mahayana and Tibetan forms, while several folk religions include themselves in the total number of Taoists.

“But the Catholic Church is only one and it is universal,” says Chuang.

Father John Jao of the Holy Family Church in Taipei said many people resist Christianity because of their ties to Buddhist and Taoist traditions.

The Jesuit priest said there are fears among some parents that if they convert, their offspring will not offer sacrifices to them after they die, adding that the Catholic Church needs to do more to address local customs and change people’s misunderstandings.

Even the structure and operation of Western churches pose problems for evangelization, Father John said.

Many of the church buildings are closed during the week, preventing people from entering, he said, and the concept of fixed places for worship, such as the “kneelers,” remains a foreign custom to many.

“Kneelers are not only unfamiliar worshipping devices but also waste space in the church. In Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques, there is no fixed stool for worshippers,” he said.

Li Feng-mao, a professor of religion at the National Chengchi University, ascribed the dramatic growth in the number of temples in Taiwan to the legalization of temple registration and the rise of new sects, which vie with one another for permission to build places of worship.

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