by Sharon E. Mumper
Reports from around the world.
AFRICA: An epidemic of death
At least one million Africans will die of AIDS in the next decade. Most will be young men and women in their most productive years. A disproportionate number will be educated professionals. So says the authoritative dossier, "Aids and the Third World," published by the Panos Institute, an international information and policy studies institute.
In parts of Africa, the survival of whole industries and economies may be at stake, the institute warns. Certainly, the loss of large numbers of skilled workers in their prime income-producing years could seriously disrupt the delicately-balanced economies of the central African countries most affected by the outbreak.
In some African cities, a fifth or more of the population is already infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. No one knows how many of them will actually contract the disease, but estimates range from 20 to 50 percent.
The United States still has the highest number of reported AIDS cases, some 70 percent of the world’s total. However, World Health Organization (WHO) expert Jonathan Mann believes half of the world’s AIDS cases have gone unreported. Many of these unreported cases would be in the developing world.
Early international publicity perhaps unfairly targeted Africa as the source of AIDS and angered government health officials, making many nations reluctant to release statistics showing the extent of the disease. Some governments warned doctors not to speak publicly about the disease. In 1982, only one African country was willing to report its AIDS cases to WHO. By last year, however, 36 African countries were reporting.
In the last six months, African countries have shown a new willingness to acknowledge the problem of AIDS, and to institute aggressive educational programs to curb its spread.
AIDS in Africa, as in much of the developing world, is solidly in the mainstream of the heterosexual community. It has grown most rapidly in Africa’s burgeoning urban areas, where traditional values break down under the pressure of accelerated social change.
Prostitutes are thought to be major transmitters of the disease. Some 80 percent of prostitutes in a Nairobi slum may carry the AIDS virus. In Congo’s coastal Pointe Nori, whose brothels are frequented by sailors from around the world, 64 percent of prostitutes last year tested HIV-positive.
The disease has also hit hard in certain rural areas where traditional social mores permit sexual encounters outside of marriage. In some Ugandan villages an entire generation has already died of AIDS, says one medical missionary. Only very young children and grandparents remain.
The AIDS epidemic has caught the church in Africa-as in much of the rest of the world-by surprise. Some church leaders, like Tokunboh Adeyemo, general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar, sees AIDS as a moral problem. The church in Africa has been growing rapidly in the last few decades. During this time, evangelistic outreach has been the church’s primary concern, Adeyemo says. Churches now must deal more carefully and consistently with moral issues.
"Now I am seeing altar calls for people who will choose to live for Christ; for holiness and sexual purity," says Adeyemo. At the Nairobi seminary where he is head of the theological studies department, Adeyemo has trained student teams to go into area schools to warn teenagers about the dangers of promiscuity.
Adeyemo is more encouraged now about Africa’s future than he was only a year ago. "If the government, church, and society had continued to pretend this problem did not exist, I would have predicted a catastrophe," he says. Now, he believes, there is hope.
BRAZIL: The spiritist challenge
"It is easy to harvest souls in Brazil," says a Brazilian evangelist. "The slightest effort produces results."
The statistics are on his side. The last 40 years have seen a nearly unprecedented ingathering, as a fragile church of some one million adult baptized believers blossomed into a powerful force of some 11 million adult members, and a total Protestant community of 19 to 25 million.
As many as 80 percent of Protestant believers are Pentecostal or charismatic. Most Pentecostals are members of the giant Brazilian Assemblies of God. With nearly six million adult baptized believers and a total community of more than eight million, the church is thought to be the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world.
Perhaps that should not be surprising. Brazil boasts the second-largest body of evangelicals in the free world. Nevertheless, they comprise only 14 percent of Brazil’s 141 million citizens.
Most Brazilians are Roman Catholics who consider themselves deeply religious, but who attend church only on special occasions. Most have at least dabbled in spiritism, and perhaps 90 million-some 64 percent of Brazilians-practice some form of spiritism, according to Paul Carden, director of the Christian Research Institute in Brazil. He believes recognition of the realm and power of the supernatural is a major reason for the growth of Pentecostal churches in Brazil.
Unfortunately, the most widely-practiced religion in Brazil, is Umbanda, a spiritist religion. Moreover, all forms of spiritism in Brazil are growing, spurred by a new religious tolerance, says Carden.
A smorgasbord of religious experiences tempts the undiscerning. "Someone may go to an evangelical service on Wednesday, an Umbanda ritual on Friday, and mass on Sunday," says Carden. "Many people believe that all religions are potentially true and some immediate practical benefit may be obtained through any of them."
Besides teaching, rituals, and consulting services, the spiritist religions offer practical help, including an alternative means of medical treatment, practiced by mediums in trances. Kardecists, practitioners of a European form of spiritism, also maintain food distribution programs, centers for the handicapped, and ministries to abandoned children.
Both the intellectual and philosophical Kardecism and the more primitive Afro-Brazilian religions offer a formidable challenge to Christians.
In the past, evangelicals have most vocally opposed the Kardecists, whose philosophical, clear-cut doctrines could be refuted more systematically, says Carden. Recently, however, Pentecostals are more aggressively evangelizing among Afro-Brazilian groups. Although most evangelistic outreaches do not exclusively target spiritists, in the last few years some church and interdenominational groups have trained people to evangelize at spiritist festivals.
Carden is encouraged by the present interest in evangelizing spiritist believers. He thinks if the emphasis continues, within 10 years spiritism could lose its prominence in Brazilian society.
In the meantime, the church may have to work harder to maintain its own growth. Some Christian leaders believe church growth is slowing. The days of easy evangelism may be over. Now, they caution, it may be time to plan more carefully and pray more faithfully.
ASIA: The church in pain
In India, militant Hindus burn a church and beat members of a congregation. In Vietnam, the doors of a once-prominent church remain shuttered while the pastor sits in a prison cell. In Indonesia, a young man is disowned by his family after he converts from Islam to Christianity. In the Philippines, members of the communist New People’s Army target rural pastors and church leaders for murder.
What is happening in Asia? Christians there are becoming less free to worship and practice their faith, according to participants at a February Consultation on the Church in the Midst of Suffering.
Sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia, the consultation drew some 24 leaders from 12 countries. Conferees examined the situation of churches currently suffering persecution, and identified religious, political, and socio-economic forces responsible for their suffering.
They observed that while the constitutions of all Asian governments guarantee religious freedom, in actual practice some deny freedom to the Christian church. In a "Letter to the Churches in Asia," delegates said they expect suffering and persecution of Asian Christians to increase in the years to come.
Asia has seen a resurgence of prominent traditional religions, with a tendency to adopt an anti-Christian stance, says D. John Richard, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia.
In addition, more than one billion Asians now live in communist countries, and more are expected to come under communist domination in the next decade. Extreme poverty is also a cause of suffering. Delegates noted that the number of Asian refugees has risen considerably in recent years, and that many are Christians.
Despite the abundance of "bad news" at the consultation, the overall tone was positive. "We refuse to be discouraged and defeated in the midst of suffering," said the writers of the Letter to the Churches in Asia. The Lord will build his church, they said, ‘"and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18)."
RUSSIA: 1,000 years and counting
The 1,000th year of Christianity in the Soviet Union may be one of the most memorable. This could be the year the floodgates were opened for the legal distribution of hundreds of thousands of Bibles in the U.S.S.R.
Permission has been given to a variety of Christian bodies in the Soviet Union to import or print up to 400,000 Bibles, according to a Mennonite Central Committee report. While that may not sound like a flood, it is a deluge compared to the trickle of Bibles that have been legally imported or printed in the last 70 years.
The largest Protestant group, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, received only 84,000 Bibles in the last 70 years through legal channels. If all promises made to them are kept, they will get 128,000 in 1987 and 1988 alone.
Everyone agrees that is cause for rejoicing. But some Christian observers say the anticipated outpouring of Bibles will form only one happy drop in the bottom of a very empty bucket. Conservative estimates of the number of Christians in the U.S.S.R. range from 50 to 60 million. The overwhelming majority are associated with the Russian Orthodox church. Some 3.5 to 4.5 million are Protestants.
Is this hopeful development the start of a new era for Christians in the Soviet Union? It’s too early to predict, says Mark Elliot, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism, Wheaton College. Much depends on the fate of the U.S.S.R.’s reform-minded leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
However, even if both he and his reforms survive, Christians may be no better off, says Elliot. With all of the items on his agenda, there is no particular reason he should invest his energy or stake his political future on making life easier for Christians. Gorbachev is, after all, a communist and an atheist.
The few advantages Christians have gained in the last two years are minor compared to the vast array of negatives that have not changed for Christians, says Elliot.
"If Christians experience striking changes for better or worse, it will be because of the nationality question," Elliot says. Recent unrest in ethnic areas of the U.S.S.R. have forced Gorbachev to face the issue of nationality, and Soviet leaders are expected to respond in some way. Most of the Soviet Union’s ethnic groups are either Christian or Muslim.
Meanwhile, as Christians in the U.S.S.R. celebrate the millenial year of Christianity in their country, the only certainty is that the faith that has survived 1,000 years can be expected to carry them into the future.
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