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Elections lay bare Catholic Church’s lost mission in Asia

The Christian inability to become a moral force in a democracy is costing the poor, minorities in poll-bound Asian nations
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has been wooing Christians ahead of national polls. Last year Modi visited Sacred Heart Cathedral on Easter Sunday in New Delhi and on Dec. 25, he hosted a Christmas lunch for Christian leaders.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has been wooing Christians ahead of national polls. Last year Modi visited Sacred Heart Cathedral on Easter Sunday in New Delhi and on Dec. 25, he hosted a Christmas lunch for Christian leaders. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 21, 2024 11:28 AM GMT
Updated: February 22, 2024 05:33 AM GMT

Almost half of the world’s population will have new governments this year with several Asian nations set to democratically elect their new leaders.

Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia have concluded their elections in the first two months of the year while India, Korea, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia are preparing to hit the polling stations in the coming months.

These Asian countries go to polls together with some 80 nations across the world, such as the US, the UK, the Netherlands (to elect members of the European Parliament), Finland, Portugal, Russia, and several African and South American nations.

Polls bring hope for change and betterment, although such hopes keep fading. Mutual trust, brotherhood, and faith in democratic constitutions are at their lowest ebb as right-wing religious forces make sustained efforts to capture power, at least in Asia.

Disinformation and misinformation campaigns have become effective tools for politicians, and even state agencies and the media to “engineer” voters and influence the results of elections.

Use of technology

All possibilities of communication technologies are now exploited in elections. It is the time of techno-democracy. The possibilities of the internet, social media, and all forms of electronic communication are controlled to protect the political interest rather than the public interest. States are now in a hurry to curtail the rights and freedoms of voters to communicate in the digital space.

Sri Lanka did it with its sweeping Online Safety Bill on Jan. 24 which proposes jail terms for content that a five-member panel considers illegal ahead of parliamentary and presidential polls.

India passed the Digital Personal Data Protection Act on Aug. 12 last year after being rushed through the nation’s parliament in six days. The law empowers the government to ask journalists and news organizations to reveal their sources. It expands the state’s censorship powers.

The interim government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in Pakistan has hastily adopted controversial amendments to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance. The law empowers the government to suspend any media outlet for spreading “fake news.”

The Indonesian government of President Joko Widodo passed the second amendment to the Electronic Information and Transactions Law on Dec. 5 last year. The law gives the state excessive power to regulate online content, privacy, and cybersecurity.

Ahead of the Jan. 7 elections, Bangladesh passed the Cyber Security Act to replace the controversial Digital Security Act, enacted in 2018, after it drew worldwide criticism.

And the Catholic Church in these nations did nothing against these laws.

Opposition-free polls

The overwhelming religious nationalism has practically annihilated opposition in national politics, not just in India but across most countries in Asia.

Right-wing groups misuse the majority religion to promote political interests overtly and covertly, but those criticizing such efforts are accused of being anti-national in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and even Sri Lanka.

Christians, a tiny minority in all these nations, are the most politically ignored community. Their inability to be politically significant in a democracy means they can be suppressed or even attacked without political repercussions. Besides, attacking them in some circumstances could help consolidate the votes of religious fanatic groups.

Christians in Pakistan are a case in point. They together with other minorities like Hindus and Sikhs make up less than 5 percent of the South Asian nation’s 241 million population.

Polls are not going to make any difference to their sorry plight. There is no sign of amending the controversial blasphemy law and no steps are being taken to set up a minorities’ commission to safeguard their interests.

No national-level steps have been taken to prevent the occurrence of yet another Jaranwala where in Punjab province at least 22 churches were looted by mobs and 91 homes torched during violence that lasted a couple of hours on Aug. 16, 2023.

Elections in India are also taking place when the world's largest democracy is witnessing a new political template of a majoritarian Hindu theocratic state. Anti-Christian movements and incidents seem to be increasing as a means for some groups to project themselves as champions of Hindu interests.

In bankrupt Sri Lanka, the Catholic Church has been at loggerheads with the government due to the tardy progress in the probe into the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which killed at least 269 people and injured some 500 when simultaneous blasts occurred at three churches and three luxury hotels in the capital Colombo.

Minorities, particularly the Tamil community, will have to continue to live with the Sri Lankan government’s Sinhalization and Buddhization agenda done overtly and covertly with legislation and with assistance from security agencies from time to time.

For Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, the February elections took place amid limited diversity in political ideologies for some 200 million Indonesian voters.

In Bangladesh, opposition political parties boycotted the Jan. 7 elections. But it helped the ruling Awami League come to power for a third consecutive term.

The Church’s compromise

The political decadence in these Asian nations was not sudden nor unplanned. Religious nationalism developed with careful planning and calculated efforts over decades. It grew, increasingly smothering democratic values and religious freedom. But the Catholic Church conveniently refrained from standing out and speaking for the minorities.

When autocratic and right-wing nationalists were paving their path to power, the Church decided to not speak out fearing it could adversely affect the Church's interests.

The hierarchy, with rare exceptions, preferred to be on the side of the politically powerful, to protect the interests of the Church. It is time the Church considered if it would be meaningful to place its interests above the interests of the millions of poor.

If it fails to stand with the poor, how will it conduct the mission of being a witness to the love of Christ?

The hierarchy generally tolerates all kinds of governments — communists, dictators, religious nationalists et all — unless they begin to hurt what the hierarchs call the Church’s interests — their power structures and economic interests.

The oppression of the poor, exploitation of their resources, and even violence against poor Christians are largely ignored. The lack of democratic values and even religious freedom are ignored too until it touches what is dearer to the hierarchy.

The example of the hierarchy’s ‘silent tolerance’ can be seen across Asia, where most nations are run by governments controlled by communists, religious nationalists, or pure autocrats. Democracy, the only system available to aid the cause of the poor and minorities, has become a farce. And yet, we hear about no serious attempts from the Church to rectify these systems.

The Christian Church is supposed to be the moral force to stand against everything that devalues human life and dignity. Ignoring the millions of poor in Asia, who live in subhuman conditions, will make the Christian Church irrelevant in Asia.

The political or economic power of the Church will not help the mission of the Church, which is being the witness to Christ’s love for the poor.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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