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Why is the Asian Church cold about Muslim friendship?

The legacy of colonial trade wars and the Crusades still colors Christian-Muslim ties on the world's most populous continent

Why is the Asian Church cold about Muslim friendship?

Police detain a man at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on March 18 for alleged ties to terror group Islamic State. In Indonesia, faith-based politics has gained ground. (Photo: AFP)

Most of the world’s Muslims live in Asia, the birthplace of all major religions including Christianity and Islam. But the world’s most populous continent has yet to wake up from the slumber of colonial trade wars and the Crusades when it comes to Christian-Muslim ties.

In Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which together house half of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, the battles for supremacy between the Christian West and Muslim rulers left the two cultures parting ways during earlier centuries.

Hardly any serious efforts have been made to mend the relationship in modern times other than some sporadic, token gestures.

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While the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British military escapades throughout Asia stripped many Muslim rulers of their royal robes, Vatican-sponsored missionaries painted Islam as a distorted version of the Holy Book among their new recruits in Asia.

Many Islamic towns in Asia were changed with a European town planning ethos, dominated by churches and monasteries. The Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits preached to convince the local people of the superiority of the Western religion.  

During their centuries of occupation of the Asian continent, both the European governors and the clergy often resorted to questionable methods to compel the "Indios" to accept the Christian religion of love and forgiveness.

With control of Asian seas falling into the hands of colonial Christendom, a vast colonial network from Sumatra to Calcutta (now Kolkata) flourished where Islamic rulers once thrived.

On the part of the Church, the popes were encouraging the monastic orders to prevent the expansion of Islam worldwide. The clergy were armed with books and handbooks of advice to convert Muslims in foreign lands.

As a countermove, Muslim theologians termed Christianity a religion of pantheism and a ploy by Western imperialism to spread its wings.

In Asia, the world’s main religious brands competed with each other in three ways — conquest, demographic rivalry and persuasion. Hate speech is an old tactic religions discovered much earlier than the social media age.

In the fight to increase adherents, Muslim rulers and Christian governors were unforgiving at mere signs of disloyalty and erected barriers to prevent mutual interaction. Muslims and Christians in Asian countries even followed separate dress codes, residues of which are still visible.

The 1.8 billion Muslims and more than 286 million Christians in Asia still subscribe to the us-versus-them philosophy, albeit unwritten and silent.

The legacy of confrontation, distrust and misunderstanding passed on from the Middle Ages to the present day found many takers in Asia when both Europe and America came up with anti-Islamic stereotypes after the Twin Tower blasts.

The US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in a face-off reminiscent of the medieval hyperbole for Asian Muslims and Christians.

While the West has made a theological and political compromise with Islam under the mutual cohabitation norm, in Asia the segregation has increased, with few takers for cordial Muslim-Christian cultural endeavors and for a thaw.

Muslim-majority nations in Asia are also taking a radical approach to their religious minorities. For example, Indonesia and Bangladesh, known for moderate Muslim politicians, are now adopting a hardline approach to please their conservative electorates.

In Indonesia, faith-based politics has gained ground and the persecution of religious minorities has increased. Hundreds of churches have been forced to close in the largest Muslim country in the world where about 10 percent of the population is Christian.

Though freedom to practice religion is guaranteed under the country’s constitution, proselytizing is banned.

Under President Jokowi Widodo, Christians find themselves victims of one-sided blasphemy accusations which punish those who speak against Prophet Muhammad or Islam while those who blaspheme against Jesus go scot-free.

In Bangladesh, Christian-Muslim ties have been nominally fraternal. A sense of fear persists among Christians about numerically and politically dominant Muslims.

Of late, the ruling Awami League, which officially professes a secular-leaning ideology, has sided with conservative Muslim clerics who regularly call for the persecution of minorities, including Christians, who make up less than 0.4 percent of Bangladesh's more than 160 million people.

Christians, who account for 1.27 percent of the 208 million population in Pakistan, face extreme persecution and discrimination. New converts from Islam face the greatest levels of persecution and all Christians are considered second-class citizens because of their faith in this Islamic nation.

Christian men are victims of bonded labor and face severe workplace discrimination in Pakistan. Christian girls live with the risk of abduction, rape and forced marriage. The country’s notorious blasphemy laws are frequently used to target Christians.

In India, where 195 million Muslims make up 14 percent of the 1.3 billion population, there is hardly any camaraderie between them and Christians. Muslims, hit hard by the wounds of the 1947 Partition, still look down on the Christian minority for their symbolic association with British colonialism.

After the Hindu right-wing government came to power in 2014 headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Christian-Muslim bonhomie has become a remote possibility due to political reasons.

Hindu-majority India is predicted to become home to the largest Muslim population in the world by 2050, surpassing Indonesia’s 231 million Muslims, if the current level of population growth continues.

As the Vatican makes efforts to reach out to Muslims worldwide, it also needs to put the focus on South and Southeast Asia where Muslim-Christian fraternity is historically difficult to come by.

Serious and time-consuming efforts are needed to heal the wounds of colonialism and the injuries of insult that the history of mission heaped on Asian lands.

A cultural paradigm shift is needed to help Asian Muslims to stretch their arms towards Christians.

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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