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Overview: Pentecostalism in Asia

The following is an overview of pentecostal history and politics in Asia, one of three continents included in Spirit and Power, a global survey of pentecostal and charismatic Christians released in October 2006. In addition to this look at Asia, overviews are available for the three Asian countries surveyed: India, the Philippines and South Korea.

Historial Overviews of Pentecostalism in Asia

India
Philippines
South Korea

Pentecostals represent a very small proportion of Asia's population of nearly 4 billion people. This contrasts sharply with pentecostalism's share of the population in parts of Africa and Latin America, which often exceeds 10-20 percent. According to 2005 figures from the World Christian Database, pentecostals represent 3.5% of Asia's population, or about 138 million people. This total includes individuals belonging to classical pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God that were founded in the early 20th century, as well as those belonging to neo-pentecostal denominations or churches that were formed more recently, such as the Jesus is Lord Church in the Philippines. Charismatic members of non-pentecostal denominations number 25 million, or less than 1% of the population. As recently as 1970, pentecostals and charismatics combined represented no more than 0.5% of the region's population.

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Christians in general are a small, and sometimes embattled, minority in many Asian nations. In most countries – including China, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam – Christians comprise no more than 10% of the population and face varying degrees of political and societal pressures. The two major exceptions to this pattern are the Philippines, where the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and South Korea, where Christians represent about 26% of the population, according to the 1995 census.

While still a relatively small fraction of the population, the number of Christians in Asia has grown significantly in the 20th century, outpacing Asia's rapid population growth. According to the World Christian Database, the number of Christians in Asia increased from approximately 22 million adherents in 1900 to 101 million in 1970. Today, according to these estimates, Christians comprise 9% of the continent's population, or nearly 351 million people. Protestants, including Anglicans and independents, made up 0.5% of Asia's population in 1900, but grew to 6% by 2005. Some experts believe that the World Christian Database estimates for Christian and Protestant adherence in Asia may be too high, due to overestimates in China, India and Indonesia (Jenkins 2001: 223-224; Hsu, et al. 2006: 22-23). But even if these estimates were reduced by half, they would still yield a Protestant population of more than 100 million.

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Pentecostals and charismatics are a minority among Asia's Protestants. While many of Korea's Protestant churches have adopted pentecostal beliefs and worship styles, charismatic influences have been minimal in some major Protestant churches in Asia, such as the 2-million-member Church of South India (Bergunder forthcoming; Satyavrata 1999: 207). Still, pentecostal and charismatic movements are gaining ground. According to one expert on global pentecostalism, "at least a third" of Asia's Christian population is now charismatic or pentecostal, and the proportion is 'steadily rising" (Anderson 2004: 123).

Although Asia's pentecostal growth has been modest in comparison with pentecostal growth in Africa or Latin America, the continent played a crucial role in pentecostalism's beginnings. Influential pentecostal revivals began in Asia before the Azusa Street Revival took off in Los Angeles in April 1906.

Revivals in southern India in the 1860s and 1870s featured charismatic gifts, including glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. These revivals set the stage for pentecostal revivals in India at the turn of the century (McGee and Burgess 2003: 118-119). In January 1905, missionaries and indigenous Christians, under the leadership of Brahmin convert Pandita Ramabai, gathered in western India (present-day Maharashtra) to pray "for a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all Christians of every land." Inspired by revivals that occurred in Wales and Australia in 1904, Ramabai's mission soon witnessed numerous charismatic manifestations, including speaking in tongues. Some of these manifestations occurred before reports of the Azusa Street Revival reached India, and many of those caught up in the revival were veteran missionaries who quickly carried what they experienced to other parts of India and the world (Anderson 2006: 37-39; McGee and Burgess 2003: 121).

Reports of the Indian revival soon spread throughout Asia. In 1906, an American missionary brought reports of the pentecostal revivals in India and Wales to a revival meeting in Seoul, Korea. The Seoul meeting grew out of a series of revivals that began in 1903 in Wonsan, Korea. These revivals placed a heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit and helped set the stage for a major revival in Pyongyang in 1907 that involved more than a thousand people, some of whom reported receiving charismatic gifts. These events in turn influenced revivals in China, including the Manchurian revival in 1908 (Y. Lee 2001: 73-76; Anderson 2005: 182).

As early as 1906, the Asian revivals were featured in the pages of the official chronicle of the Azusa Street Revival, The Apostolic Faith, published in Los Angeles. Reports of the Asian revivals helped persuade early pentecostals that they were part of a worldwide movement (Bergunder 2005: 182-183). American missionary Minnie Abrams, a key participant in the Indian revival, sent a booklet about the revival to her friend and former Moody Bible Institute classmate Mae Hoover, then a Methodist missionary in Chile with her husband, Willis Hoover. After reading Abrams's account, the Methodist churches in Chile organized a similar pentecostal revival, which began in 1909. Chilean pentecostalism thus has its roots in India rather than in Los Angeles (Anderson 2006: 39-40, 47).

Since these early beginnings, the growth of pentecostalism has varied significantly across Asia. The Philippines and South Korea have particularly high percentages of pentecostals and charismatics; adherents make up more than 15% of the population in both countries, according to the World Christian Database. In China, Indonesia, India, Lebanon, Malaysia and Singapore, pentecostals and charismatics combined represent between 2-6% of the national population. At the lower end are Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, as well as many other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, where pentecostals and charismatics represent less than 2% of the population.

Despite their minority status, pentecostals have become an increasingly visible presence in much of Asia. Korean pentecostals boast the world's largest church, Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is located in Seoul's equivalent of Manhattan and claims a membership of more than 700,000. In the Philippines, the neopentecostal Jesus is Lord Church, founded in 1978, has quickly built a membership of 300,000. As in Latin America, pentecostalism's sudden expansion in the Philippines has led some to see it as a challenge to the dominant Catholic Church, though the largest expression of Philippine pentecostalism is taking place inside the Church, in the form of El Shaddai, a Catholic charismatic group with more than 7 million adherents (Anderson 2004: 1, 131-132). India, which has an overwhelmingly Hindu majority, has seen the dramatic growth of pentecostal mega-churches, including New Life Fellowship in Mumbai and Assemblies of God churches in Chennai and Bangalore (Hedlund 2005; McGivering, Dec. 6, 2002). Muslim-majority Indonesia has also experienced rapid pentecostal growth since the mid-1960s. The country's largest pentecostal denomination, the Pentecostal Church of Indonesia, had an estimated 2 million members in 2001, and pentecostal mega-churches have appeared in Jakarta and Surabaya (Robinson 2005: 335-340).

The expansion of the pentecostal population has brought increased involvement in Asian politics and public life. For example, David Yonggi Cho, the pastor of Korea's Yoido Full Gospel Church, has forged close ties with former Korean president and Presbyterian elder Kim Young Sam, and he has hosted pro-American and pro-Israel gatherings and rallies. Yoido church members have been among the country's most vocal advocates of human rights and religious freedom for North Korea (Marquand, June 11, 2003). In the Philippines, Jesus is Lord founder Eddie Villanueva openly endorsed Fidel Ramos, the country's first Protestant president, before running for president himself in 2004. Villanueva and Catholic charismatic leader Mario Velarde continue to be prominent players in Philippine politics.

At the same time, the relatively small population of pentecostals in most of Asia has meant that pentecostal political activism has been less sustained, less organized and less influential than in Latin American and Africa. Christians in general, and pentecostals in particular, are usually too few in number to launch major political movements or to secure significant political representation.

Despite these low levels of direct political activism, pentecostal and other evangelical communities in Asia have been the focus of intense and often violent public controversy. Muslim groups in Indonesia, Hindu groups in India and Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka have accused pentecostals and other evangelicals of undertaking aggressive "proselytization" campaigns, aided by Western personnel and funding (Baviskar, Nov. 26, 2005; Bartholomeusz 1999; Robinson 2005). In several Asian countries, such efforts to convert non-Christians have generated a vociferous political reaction, including:

  • Government suppression of pentecostal churches in China, such as the True Jesus Church (Zhaoming 2005).

  • The passage of anti-conversion laws in several Indian states, including Tamil Nadu in 2002 (rescinded in 2004), Gujarat in 2003 and Rajasthan in 2006 (U.S. Department of State 2006a).

  • The proposal of a national anti-conversion law in Sri Lanka, under consideration by a special parliamentary committee since April 2006 (U.S. Department of State 2006c).

  • Numerous physical attacks on pentecostal and evangelical churches and pastors in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries, particularly since the mid-1990s (Human Rights Watch 1999; Robinson 2005; U.S. Department of State 2006a, 2006b, 2006c).

In some Asian countries, such as India and Sri Lanka, majority religious communities regard pentecostal expansion as a threat to religion-based national identities. In these countries, as well as others, including Myanmar and Vietnam, Protestantism has historically been associated with separatist ethnic movements (among the Montagnard and Karen peoples, for example) and is thus seen as a threat to national unity and territorial integrity. Throughout Asia, the perception of Christians as "foreign," "anti-national" and "neo-colonial" is far more entrenched and pervasive than in Africa or Latin America (Jenkins 2001: 175-177, 182-185).

In this context, the growth of pentecostalism in Asia almost inevitably causes public debate and political controversy. Given Asia's growing strategic and economic importance, these religiously charged conflicts are likely to become increasingly consequential for the future of the region and the world.

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