by Sharon E. Mumper
Reports from around the world.
Voodoo on the defensive
Is voodoo on the run in Haiti? One of the poorest countries in the world, the little Caribbean island nation is nominally Roman Catholic. But for centuries, the practice of voodoo ruled the lives and hearts of Haiti’s people.
All that may now be changing. Last year’s ouster of strongman Jean Claude Duvalier shook voodoo’s top practitioners. In the violent months following Duvalier’s departure, voodoo temples and homes of priests were destroyed as angry youths sought revenge against everyone who had been associated with the Tontons Macoute militia.
The powerful political network served as the pillar of the Duvalier family rule and had included many leaders and priests of voodoo communities.
Whether public opinion continues against voodoo remains to be seen. Voodoo’s influence has pervaded Haitian society probably far more than most Haitians realize. More than 50 percent of Haitians actively practice voodoo worship.
"A lot of people who claim to be Catholic are actually voodoo worshippers," according to Claude Noel, general secretary of the Council of Evangelical Churches of Haiti. "Roman Catholicism is the state religion, and people are born into it rather than converted into it."
Those who practice voodooism do not, in fact, call it a religion. "They say voodoo is a way of life, rather than a religion," said Noel. "However, it has all the ingredients of a religion."
The practice of voodoo developed centuries ago when Africans brought to Haiti as slaves were introduced to a form of Christianity without its substance. In Catholicism they found images to fit the animistic concepts they had known in Africa. "They produced a brand-new religion, neither completely animist, nor Christian," said Noel.
"A lot of young people view voodoo as a folk religion and don’t want any part of it," said Noel. At the same time they are afraid of it, and in times of crisis may seek the assistance of the priest or witchdoctor.
"But since the revolution in Haiti, people have felt differently," said Noel. "Because both the Catholic and Protestant church spoke out prior to the revolution, they feel the church freed them from the oppression of the government.
"It has gotten to the point when you ask someone whether he is converted, instead of saying ‘noâ€™, he will say ‘not yet.’ Our young people, especially, are looking for a new way of life."
The church in Haiti is growing. In 1940, Protestants comprised only 5 percent of the population. Twenty years later, 20 percent of Haitians were Protestants. Today, 30 percent of Haiti’s six million people are Protestants. Two-thirds of all Protestants might be considered evangelical.
"All of the churches are growing," said Noel. "Our church buildings are too small. Since the revolution people have become closer to God. They are becoming more interested in the gospel."
Is voodoo really on the run in Haiti? The long-term impact of current anti-voodoo feeling remains to be seen. One thing can be said: the church is on the grow in Haiti.
Christians thrive in Muslim nation
What country has more Muslims than any other? If you are one of the few people who would guess Indonesia, congratulate yourself. With an estimated Muslim population of 140 million, the southeast Asian nation has more Muslims than all of the Arab countries put together.
Despite this, followers of other religions find considerably more freedom of expression than those in Middle Eastern countries. This is largely the result of "pancasila," a philosophy that has guided the nation’s policies since its declaration of independence in 1945.
As colonial rulers departed with ungraceful reluctance, new national leaders tackled the difficult task of uniting a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-lingual people. If that were not challenge enough, new rulers cast a wide net, drawing within national boundaries thousands of islands scattered like puzzle pieces over a vast expanse of ocean.
The new country’s cultural, linguistic, and geographical boundaries boggled the mind. But Sukarno, the nation’s new president, rose to the challenge. Declaring the nation would find unity in diversity, he introduced pancasila. It proved to be the glue that would hold the puzzle pieces on the board.
"Christians must thank God that at the beginning of modern Indonesia in 1945, the foundation of the country was pancasila," said Suwardi Sutodimedjo, assistant to the president of Emmanuel Christian University in Yojakarta.
Forty years ago, Christians were a tiny minority in a country that was perhaps 95 percent Muslim. From the beginning, government leaders made it clear that Indonesia would not be a secular state. But if it were to be a religious state, what religion would it embrace? The answer seemed obvious.
But as the concept of pancasila blossomed, Indonesians found its new government took seriously its pledge to protect the country’s diversity-including the diversity of its religions.
"Because of this ideology, Christians have much opportunity to do social works and to witness," said Sutodimedjo, who is the former director of religious affairs for Protestant believers in the government’s Department of Religion.
This is not to say Christians may operate without constraint. Christians must act in a style consistent with the "expectations of society." This means they must not employ "extreme" methods that could be construed as forcing a religious belief on another person.
"There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to distribute literature and to evangelize," said Sutodimedjo. Groups that exercise restraint and go through proper channels find they have much opportunity to evangelize and perform social services.
By the same token, missionaries must minister in approved ways. "The policy in Indonesia in the last decade has been that foreigners who come should have a specialization," Sutodimedjo said. "This is good, because from our side, we are forced to train ourselves to do our own work."
Christians in Indonesia are taking advantage of opportunities to serve. There are at least 45 Christian universities and theological seminaries in Indonesia, according to Sutodimedjo. Thousands of Christian elementary and secondary schools serve the country.
"Most of the pupils in Christian schools are from Muslim backgrounds," said Sutodimedjo. Parents are attracted by the high quality of education and are willing to sign waivers declaring they do not object to their children receiving Christian education.
Churches and denominations operate scores of hospitals, orphanages, rest homes, and programs for mentally-handicapped people. Pastors are called on to provide prison ministries and sometimes to assist with Christian education in the public schools.
Meanwhile, the church continues to grow in Indonesia. "We must work while we can," said one pastor who works 14 hours a day. "The doors are open now. We must take advantage of our opportunity."
A light shines in the Philippines
"Muslims are not so hard to bring to Christ." It was an astonishing statement for a Filipino church leader. In a country where Christian reaction to Muslims ranges from fear to indifference, a pastor who has even attempted Muslim evangelism is an oddity. To succeed is unheard of.
"All it takes," he said, "is workers with a burden to reach Muslims." There is the problem. Even this district superintendent with churches involved in two very successful Muslim outreaches recognized the problem inherent in the solution.
"There are too few people burdened for Muslims." Bible schools and seminaries do not teach courses in Muslim evangelism, he said. Church leaders do not encourage evangelism of Muslim neighbors.
One reason is the traditional animosity between Christians and Muslims. Over the centuries, the Muslim and Christian populations have developed different languages, clothing, and customs.
"Hatred has been passed down by our parents and grandparents. We were told not to befriend or trust Muslims," he said. "Even pastors have been brainwashed. It is a hindrance; we are blocked from opening doors."
In one region, however, doors are opening primarily because of the vision of two church workers. Work began less than two years ago in two villages where groups of transient Muslim fishing families live.
The church established community centers where families could meet for fellowship and recreation. Soon, Bible studies sprang up, groups began meeting for services, and then converted Muslims began to ask for baptism. Today there are some 65 baptized believers among the 105 families that comprise the two villages.
Why have these churches succeeded in reaching a group normally thought to be so resistant to the gospel? Muslim villagers were pleased by the attention they received from Christians. "They realized our motives were good, so they welcomed us," said the pastor.
Because the mobile villages are somewhat removed from the centers of Muslim power and influence, Christians did not face the organized opposition they might otherwise have expected.
Moreover, in Christianity, they were able to bring the villagers something they did not find in Islam. "One remarkable thing that attracts Muslims is the miracle of healing," said the pastor. The fishing families are simple, poor people unable to afford expensive medical care. "So when they realize we are praying for the sick, they ask us to pray," he said. "The Lord is good to perform healing, and miracle after miracle is seen."
Changed lives are a testimony as well. Villagers say that in Islam they never saw anyone delivered from vices. But when they become Christians, their lives change and they are able to love others.
The new Christians are witnessing to Muslim neighbors, relatives, and fellow fishermen. More than that, they are reaching out to the nominal Christians who live around them. Barriers have broken down between Muslims and Christians. "Christians are now joining the former Muslims in their worship," said the pastor. "They are saying the entire community has changed."
The Philippine church by and large remains unmoved by the situation of their Muslim neighbors. But in one small place at least, a little light has begun to shine.
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