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Updated: March 19, 2000 05:00 PM GMT
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Argentine Father Juan Edmundo Vecchi is the first rector major of the Salesian Society of Saint John Bosco from outside Italy since the Salesians were founded in 1859.

Saint John Bosco´s eighth successor attended the South-Asian Salesian Provincials Conference Feb. 29-March 4 in Mumbai, western India. Attending the conference were 75 Salesian heads from India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Father Vecchi spoke to UCA News on the Salesian response to the challenges to evangelization in Asia.

UCA NEWS: What were the highlights of the provincials´ conference?

FATHER JUAN EDMUNDO VECCHI: The conference highlighted our commitment to education, involvement of the laity and interreligious dialogue in the multireligious, multilingual and multiracial countries in South Asia.

It also discussed evangelization in total freedom and commitment to poor youth. We will continue the mission of our founder Don Bosco by living and working together in a community specializing in youth pastoral services. We are the animating nucleus for young people.

What will be Salesians´ main thrust in Asia during the coming years?

Increasing efforts will be made to appreciate the good aspects found in other religions in Asia. We have to understand and appreciate the basic values of other religions and take part in their cultural and religious festivals, thus promoting concretely an atmosphere of interfaith dialogue and facilitating an inculturated evangelization at all levels.

For a meaningful dialogue with people of other faiths, some Salesians are pursuing higher studies in major religions like Hinduism and Islam.

What are challenges Salesians face in Asia?

As Pope John Paul II has said, religion is the key for promoting convergence, fostering freedom among the faithful, and forming peaceful relationships and living interreligious prayer groups. In this context, it is a great challenge for the Salesians to facilitate a mentality of dialogue and involve themselves more in interfaith dialogue.

Salesians are involved in rescuing child victims of sex tourism in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Due to abject poverty, children fall prey to sexual abuse from tourists, and it is not an easy task for Salesians to work in this area.

Throughout Asia we have experienced that globalization, luxurious living and consumerism are increasingly influencing the children. This is resulting in human values being discarded by the youth. We are trying to give a vision of life with Christian values to these children.

In the specific Indian context, we face the challenge of how to combine our education with evangelization, especially in the current sensitive times when fundamentalism has raised its ugly head in India. We are also trying to make our communities and centers adopt the Indian way of life so that we identify with the local people and not isolate ourselves from them.

What are areas identified for lay involvement and how will you pursue it?

A challenge before the Salesians is the need to change their mentality and develop an awareness of the specific contribution of laypeople to the Salesian mission. We have to promote involvement and participation of laypeople in setting up and animating educative pastoral communities and to develop a participatory style of exercising authority.

The Salesians will make the educative pastoral community the primary setting for the formation of Salesians and laity together. They will promote various formation programs in the provinces and communities at the local level for Salesians and lay collaborators.

They will also create frequent opportunities for coming Salesians and laypeople to come together, such as live-in programs, retreats, celebrations, study of themes relevant to Salesian mission and other meetings of a fraternal nature.

Salesian provinces will commit to give life to new centers of cooperators and to new units of former students. A special effort will be made that every local community learn about the secular institute of the volunteers of Don Bosco. Salesians will collaborate and network with others, especially non-governmental organizations, to eradicate illiteracy, to promote socio-economic development and to help talented youth to excel in higher education with a view to their taking leadership roles in civil and political life.

You have a widespread presence in northeastern India, where pro-Hindu groups have become quite active. Has this caused problems?

People in all the seven states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura love Don Bosco priests and brothers. The name Don Bosco is respected everywhere. Our education and evangelization work is carried out in total freedom there. But our priests and communities still face the threat of extortion and looting.

The problem of extortion has increased. It is the underground gangs which are involved in extortion. The fundamentalists are spreading rumors about us, saying we are destroying (local) culture, and accuse us of forced conversions, but they have not provided evidence to date. Some of our priests were killed there also.

In which other Asian countries are you active?

We are active in 23 countries in Asia including Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand,

What about Pakistan?

We have just started a youth center in Quetta in Pakistan with four Spanish and Italian Salesians. There they deal with mostly Muslims and a very few Christians. Due to the India-Pakistan standoff, we cannot send Indian Salesians to Pakistan. It is really a pity. So we have to send Italians, Latin Americans, Spaniards or Africans, who are acceptable to the Pakistanis.

How do you evaluate Salesian Bishop Carlos Belo´s role in East Timor? Is it political?

Bishop Belo´s role was to guide and organize the people of East Timor to fight for their own fundamental rights. No doubt it was a political action to secure for the people their right to vote in a conducive atmosphere of freedom and without feeling any pressure.

Bishop Belo (apostolic administrator of Dili, the East Timor capital) was in a way instrumental in getting the Indonesian and Portuguese foreign ministers to sign an agreement on the autonomy scheme on May 5, 1999. This allowed East Timor people to vote on whether to remain part of Indonesia with special autonomy or become an independent state. It was a diplomatic achievement in 23 years of efforts to solve the East Timor issue. We do not preach publicly for independence or autonomy for East Timor. However, fundamental human rights should be respected.

Bishop Belo is providing political education and political leadership to the people, but does not directly preach to them any ideology. The Church there is not siding with any group, either the pro-independence camp or the pro-autonomy camp. That will be dangerous, because both belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The Church there sides with people who are oppressed, terrorized, intimidated and threatened.


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