Methodist churches face challenges worldwide
  By Tim Tanton*

Hong Kong /  Africa / Russia / Australia / Pakistan / India / Tonga / Nigeria / Italy
HONG KONG (UMNS) - Two years after the handover of the former British colony
to China, Hong Kong continues to enjoy the same degree of religious freedom
as before, local leaders told the World Methodist Council's executive

"As we have witnessed, the opportunities to carry on with our daily lives as
before continue unaltered. This is especially true of our religious beliefs
and practices," said the Hon. Rosanna Wong, a Christian and Hong Kong
government official.

Executive committee members heard reports from around the globe during their
Sept. 20-24 meeting. The comments on Hong Kong came during welcoming remarks
by local church and civic leaders. Information on other regions around the
globe was offered through brief area updates during the first two days'
business sessions.

While Hong Kong's Christians can practice their faith in peace, others in
countries such as Pakistan, India and Indonesia are not so fortunate. The
area updates highlighted challenges facing Christians in Africa, Asia and
Europe - challenges that include dealing with persecution and providing
ministry in the midst of violence, political instability and great need.

The church in Hong Kong is not large, but it is committed to spreading the
Gospel, providing social and educational services, and caring for the whole
being of the local citizens, said the Rev. Ping-kwong Li, president of the
Methodist Church of Hong Kong. According to the 1997 World Methodist Council
Handbook, the Church of Christ in China, Free Methodist Church, Methodist
Chruch and Church of the Nazarene have more than 39,000 members and serve a
community of 218,000 in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The council's executive committee met in the Chinese Methodist Church, which
just opened its new building in Hong Kong's busy Wan Chai district last
year. The church hopes to be an oasis in the business district, Li said. Its
walls should be transparent, and its pulpit should be on the curbside, he

Freedom of religious belief and freedom to practice and conduct religious
worship in public are provided by the agreement that established Hong Kong
as a special administrative region, or SAR, of the People's Republic of
China, according to Wong. Hong Kong had been under British rule for 150
years until the July 1997 handover.

The executive committee's meeting follows a major Lutheran gathering that
occurred after the handover, Wong noted.

The role of social organizations and church bodies is important in Hong
Kong, particularly in light of the economic upheaval that has hit Asia, Wong
said. The economic crisis resulted in Hong Kong's highest unemployment rate
in more than a decade, she said.

Outreach efforts led by Li did much to alleviate the initial trauma of Hong
Kong's economic troubles, Wong said. This was a time for the church
community to demonstrate its religious faith by following in the steps of
Christ to serve "the least of these," she said.

"It is only by the following of this calling that the church can truly
fulfill its mission in society," she said.

Throughout the executive committee meeting, members affirmed each other in
their ministries and offered support.

"Some of us who are comfortable in our American tradition need to get
uncomfortable," said Bishop Donald Ming of the African Methodist Episcopal
Church. After hearing the update from India, Ming said the council should
act to show it does care for its brothers and sisters around the world. "I
challenge us to be more active in our concern for those issues that have
been lifted up."

In resolutions adopted during the week, the executive committee called for
an end to the violence in Indonesia and also expressed support for victims
of the recent earthquake in Taiwan.

Executive committee members provided area updates from around the globe,

Southern Africa - The region recently celebrated the smooth transition of
power in the governments of Botswana and South Africa, said Bishop Mvume
Dandala of South Africa. Democratic elections are set for December in
Mozambique, Swaziland has a new democratic constitution, and tension in
Botswana and Namibia is being resolved in a positive way, he said. He is
"grateful to God" for the political stability in South Africa, he said.

Great economic changes have occurred, mostly inspired by International
Monetary Fund requirements, he said. The measures are aimed at strengthening
the economy, but there is concern that this kind of strengthening doesn't
seem to create more jobs or impact poverty in the area, he said. The world
church movements should be on guard that strong powers like the IMF "don't
rob our governments of their hope and passion," he said.

Much more is needed to resolve the AIDS problem in the countries of Southern
Africa, he said.

The greatest challenge facing the church is determining whether the
Christian faith is providing a base of spirituality in Africa, he said. "We
in Africa are actually saying, what kind of Christianity is growing in
Africa?" Is it the kind that can bring wholeness and healing to the
continent, or the kind that just makes people feel good and doesn't take
seriously the need for healing and transformation? He voiced the hope that
the Methodist church will seek to be in the forefront of proclaiming the
gospel in Africa.

Russia - United Methodist Bishop Ruediger Minor thanked the executive
committee members for their concern and prayers for the church in Russia.
The United Methodist Church there was reregistered with the government early
this year, and Minor hopes to have 50 local churches registered by early
2000. At the same time, he asked for prayer support in the wake of bomb
blasts that have ripped through apartment buildings in Moscow and "created
almost paranoid vigilance" among the country's leaders and people.

Australia - Reconciliation is occurring between the country's original
inhabitants and those who came more recently, said the Rev. John Edward
Mavor of Sydney South. The church is willing to apologize and make
reparations for the role it played with the government in separating
aboriginal children from their homes. Mavor also noted that drawing young
people and those who have no religion into the church is a challenge, and he
expressed hope that in the millennium, the church will experience renewed
energy at the congregational level.

Australia's good relationship with Indonesia has been tested recently, Mavor
said. The replacement of liberal Islam by fundamental Islam in Indonesia has
been "devastating," he said. with the churches and mosques alike being
burned and people killed. East Timor is a "deep concern" for the Australian
church, which wants to stand up for the rights of East Timor and also
maintain a healthy relationship with Indonesia.

Indonesia - The "killing never stops" in Indonesia, said Maimunah Natasha of
Jakarta, in an emotional update on her country. Unrest in the capital city
of Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesia has resulted in a high degree of
killings, gang rapes and other violence, she said. More than 500 churches
have been burned in the last two years, compared with about 367 church
burnings in the previous 32 years, she said. The people are suffering; they
are unemployed, hungry, lonely, and their future is uncertain, she said. She
urged the World Methodist Council to speak out and be a channel for those
people who need love and action in Indonesia.

Pakistan - Christians are not free in the Islamic nation, according to
Bishop S.K. Dass of Hyderabad.  Christians cannot preach or build churches
very freely, and if they say anything against Ilsam or the Koran, they may
be hanged. However, the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches
have developed a close cooperation because of the persecution, and that has
been "kind of a blessing," he said.

India - Christians are experiencing increased persecution and violence at
the hands of militant Hindus, said Bishop D.K. Mohanty from the Church of
North India. Missionaries and priests have been killed, nuns raped in broad
daylight, churches ransacked, he said. Moslems also are being attacked, he
said. No one is coming to the rescue of the minority religious communities,
and the perpetrators of the violence are not being caught, he said. "This
has not dampened our spirit," he said. He asked for prayers for the people,
the churches and those who are committing the atrocities.

Despite the problems, the church in India is growing stronger and
conversions are taking place, according to Bishop Samuel R. Thomas of

Tonga - "My country feels at home with the word 'Methodist,'" said the Rev.
Manase Tafea of Tonga. Four generations of the island's kings have been
Methodist lay preachers, he said. Frances M. Alguire, chairperson of the
World Methodist Council, along with other council members will be with the
island's 85-year-old king to witness the first rays of the year 2000, he

Nigeria - A democratic president has been elected, and for the first time, a
Christian holds the post, said His Eminence Sunday C. Mbang of Lagos, bishop
of Nigeria and secretary of the World Methodist Council. The new president
is putting God first, Mbang said. "That has made a whole lot of difference
in the country." Fighting corruption is a priority for the new government,
along with getting European and U.S. banks to release Nigeria's oil dollars.
If that money is released to Nigeria, the country would never have to get
another loan from the World Bank, Mbang said.

Problems between Christians and Muslims will be addressed when leaders of
both traditions meet this month for dialogue, Mbang said.

He expressed hope for stability in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic
Republic of Congo, all of which have been torn by civil wars. The countries
of the West will have to help resolve the problems in Angola, and they can
do that by halting the sale of arms to the combatants, he said.

Italy - The Methodist Church in Italy is growing, said the Rev. Valdo
Benecchi of Rome. The church is working to help the victims of the war in
Kosovo, he said. He also described a major effort by the church to save
girls from prostitution by creating alternative jobs for them, and providing
for their housing, food and other daily needs.

*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.
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