by Sharon E. Mumper
Reports from around the world.
SRI LANKA: They’re our tears now
"They call it the teardrop of India, but I think it is our tears now." Reggie Ebenezer is general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka and coordinator of the group’s relief and development arm. In the course of his work he sees plenty of tears.
More than 6,000 people have died in the last four years in a civil war that has threatened to tear apart the little teardrop-shaped island off the southern coast of India. Formerly known as Ceylon, the island was ruled by Britain until it gained its independence in 1948. Although the seeds of conflict were present from the beginning, large-scale violence did not erupt until 1983, when nearly 1,000 Tamil Hindus were massacred in rioting by Sinhalese Buddhists angered by killings by Tamil militants.
At the root of the problem is the country’s ethnic and religious makeup. Buddhism commands the allegiance of 69 percent of the population. Some 15 percent are Hindu, 7.5 percent are Roman Catholic, and an equal number are Muslim. A minuscule 1 percent are Protestant, of which only a quarter are evangelical. All Buddhists are ethnic Sinhalese; all Hindus are ethnic Tamils. Only the Christian church incorporates members of both groups.
For this reason, Ebenezer believes the church can contribute to national reconciliation. "I feel very strongly the church has a great ministry as a functional model of the reconciling society," he said. Most churches, however, are not ready for this role. Ebenezer said churches are afraid of being misunderstood by one side or the other.
The church has had its own problems, as well. The Protestant church has split over the World Council of Churches’ support of Tamil militant groups. In the Roman Catholic church, Tamil and Sinhalese bishops have been at odds with one another. In both of these areas, however, Ebenezer sees a new willingness to work toward reconciliation.
"We are such a small number, but we have 50 to 100 different groups and denominations," Ebenezer said. "We are often asked why there are so many divisions among Christians. But actually, there are more things that unite us than divide us. Earlier, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka had a shallow sort of unity movement. But we are beginning to see the development of real unity."
In spite of the continuing conflictâ€”or perhaps because of itâ€”the church is growing like never before. "I believe the present crisis is a contributing factor in the growth of the church," Ebenezer said. "People are beginning to think about the really important issues of life." Most conversions have come from among Sinhalese Buddhists, although an increasing number of converts are former Muslims.
The number of rural churches grew 27 percent last year, according to a survey by the Church Growth Research Center of Sri Lanka. In 1985, rural churches increased 21 percent. This is significant, Ebenezer said, since 82 percent of Sri Lanka is rural.
He said the greatest growth has occurred among pentecostal and charismatic groups. Signs and wonders are at the heart of the growth of these churches, according to Eloise Clarno, executive secretary of the Department of Missions International of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, one of the largest mission agencies working in the country.
"Most of our churches have been started as the result of someone being miraculously healed, or delivered from demonic powers," Clarno said.
The charismatic movement has made an impact on the mainline churches, as well. "Churches are realizing this factor must be taken into account," Ebenezer said. "An increasing number of churches are having healing services and the like. They are doing this with a view to keeping their members happy, since many people were leaving the churches."
Renewed interest in evangelism has turned around established churches, which in recent years had seen little growth.
"They are growing now largely as a result of lay participation and evangelization, rather than through the clergy," Ebenezer said. Another factor has been cooperative evangelization efforts between mainline and evangelical groups.
ALBANIA: Traitors must be shot
Albanian officials talk about religion with obvious contempt. What is to be the fate of those enemies of the state who would dare to practice religion? "All traitors must be shot," one tour guide bluntly states. An official’s answer is even more graphic. "The dissenter must be destroyed, like a weasel in the chicken coop."
Only a generation ago Albanians were deeply religious. Some 70 percent were Muslim; most of the rest were Orthodox or Roman Catholic. But in 1944 a staunchly Stalinist communist regime gained power; some 20 years later the practice of religion was declared illegal, and Albania became the world’s first and only atheist state.
Thousands of religious leaders were tortured and murdered; all of Albania’s 2,169 religious buildings were razed or converted to other uses; crosses were removed even from gravestones. Religious practice came to a complete halt.
Why then was a retired American missionary couple permitted to return for a 10-day visit last fall as guests of the government? Former Conservative Baptist missionaries Edwin and Dorothy Jacques never got an answer to that question. The couple had taught in a Christian school in Albania from 1932 to 1940. When they left the country, they fully expected to return. Never did they dream it would be nearly half a century before they would once again walk on Albanian soil.
For 40 years they applied repeatedly for a visa. But Albania’s despise for Soviet "social imperialism" was matched only by its hatred of American "capitalist imperialism." For 30 years no American not of Albanian descent was allowed to visit the countryâ€”until last November.
Two years after the Jacques’ appeal directly to Albania’s top leader, Ramiz Alia, the visa suddenly came through. That was amazing enough. But the real surprise greeted them at the airport when representatives of the Committee for Cultural and Friendly Relations with Foreigners informed them that a chauffeured car, a guide, and accommodations at the best hotels had all been arrangedâ€”at government expense.
Why would a government whose constitution prohibited all religious expression welcome a missionary couple? "You asked to come and we invited you," they were told.
Their tour of the country brought some pleasant surprises. Although Albania is still Europe’s poorest nation, it has developed some substantial industries. "No longer did we see the familiar tinsmiths sitting cross-legged on the floor of their little shops tapping out and soldering rather crude metal utensils," said Jacques. "But we saw a vast metallurgical plant employing more than 10,000 workers who from their own iron ore can craft nearly every steel product needed in the country."
The Jacques visited factories, farms, museums, and castles. But they were disappointed in their efforts to see old friends. Although they had addresses for some fellow workers, they did not want to endanger them by visiting them in their homes. Correspondence suggesting a public meeting in a town square did not get to their friends in time.
Few Protestant believers are left in the country. Albania’s Protestant church has been persecuted throughout its history, first by the majority religions and then by the communist government. When the communist regime took power in 1944, there were only some 100 Protestants in the entire country.
Today, Jacques is not aware of any clandestine home church meetings. In Operation World, Patrick Johnstone describes the size of the church as "a handful." He follows those words with a question mark.
What is the future of the church? "I’m optimistic," Jacques said. "You see what happened in China when it looked like the whole Christian enterprise had gone down the drain. I feel that in the same way good things are happening in Albania."
PHILIPPINES: Good news and bad news
A Christian Filipino observing the signs of the times in the Philippines could become manic depressive. The good news is very, very good; the bad news is terrible.
Very good news centers around the phenomenal growth of the Protestant church. Motivated by a goal of putting a church in every barangay (community) by the year 2000, major evangelical denominations add new churches at an annual rate of 12 to 20 percent.
Typical of many denominations is the Conservative Baptist Association of the Philippines (CBAP). Although their annual growth has been 20 percentâ€”a figure Christians in many other countries only dream ofâ€”they believe they could do better.
"Our goal is to double our membership every two-and-a-half years," said CBAP General Director Oscar Baldemor. At the end of 1986, the denomination had 25,000 baptized membersâ€”a gain of 5,000 over the year before. "This is our group alone," he said. "If you combine our results with those of othersâ€”especially charismatic groupsâ€”you will see the church is growing by leaps and bounds.
"I visited one church that in four years gained 2,000 members. In every one of 60 cities in the Philippines today you would see people worshipping in hotels and auditoriums on Sundays."
That’s the good news. The bad news is that in many placesâ€”especially in the troubled southâ€”churches are caught in the crossfire between army troops and a variety of rebel groups. Last year, 53 Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) churches were forced to close their doors when entire villages fled to safer regions. In the first four months of 1987, believers in 36 of 60 Conservative Baptist churches on the island of Mindanao were forced to evacuate their communities.
Many Christian leaders cite the growth of communism as a primary problem for the church and the nation. International observers put the strength of the communist New People’s Army at 23,000. Christians in Mindanao also face considerable pressure from Muslim rebel groups demanding a separate Muslim state.
"Despite this, the church is growing," said Ben de Jesus, president of the C&MA Churches of the Philippines (CAMACOP). "The socio-political problems and dangers seem to contribute to church growth. More people are looking for something to hang onto."
The Protestant church certainly has room to grow. Some 84 percent of Filipinos are related in some way to the Roman Catholic church. Another 8.4 percent are Muslim. Evangelicals comprise only 6.4 percent of the population.
Evangelical leaders are not daunted by the size of the challenge. "Opportunities are wider now than we dreamed possible," Baldemor said. "The Philippines is now more open to the gospel than we have ever seen before."
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