International migration in East and South East Asia | ResearchGate

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Christian Protestantism (6%) and Islam (0.7%). b) Countries of destination. Taiwan. Taiwan is a country of various religious beliefs. There are currently thirteen ...

Transnational Religion, Migration, and Diversity in South East Asia December 1-4, 2004 Renaissance Hotel, Kuala Lumpur


Introduction Little to no attention has been given to the religious dimension of migration in Asia, even if it is generally a relevant part of the identity and culture of migrants. In some cases, like the one of Filipino migrants, faith in God represents a real source of strength in all the different stages of their migration process. Dealing with the spiritual dimension of human life, religion may constitute a privileged instrument in the search for cross-cultural integration and peaceful coexistence, in spite of deep ethnic divides. In East and Southeast Asia, migration may provide a suitable terrain for a sincere and fruitful interfaith dialogue, even where any dialogue seems to be chronically jeopardized by cultural and political misunderstandings, often rooted in ancient histories. a) Definition of terms Interfaith or interrreligious dialogue has imposed itself as a special topic only after the Second War World, probably to eliminate the terrible ghosts of racism, imperialism and discrimination, which blindly led entire populations to perpetrate every kind of atrocities. After the Vatican II Council (1963-1965), the Catholic Church took the lead in proposing encounters among different religious leaders in order to promote mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence. Modernity and globalization, making the world a village, have generated a new awareness about the “structural necessity” of interfaith dialogue, just to assure the survival of diversity. Notwithstanding that every religion is getting involved with a different approach, the comprehension of terms happens to be quite similar. According to the American Islamic Congress, « Interfaith dialogue is an opportunity. In our free and open society, religious groups can share their solutions not only for reconciling tradition and modernity, but also for the pressing problems of the day. » Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara, an American Buddhist scholar, defines interfaith dialogue as a precious contribution to the construction of a peaceful pluralistic society: « As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has put it: I am interested not in converting other people to Buddhism but in how we Buddhists can contribute to human society, according to our own ideas." And I have always maintained, and maintain today, that if we had enough in common thirty years ago to begin talking to each other, then we have, enough in common to continue. » Christian Donald K. McKim, from the Evangelical Christian point of view, stated that interfaith dialogue is a series of «… discussions for mutual understanding held among differing religious bodies. » In the same line, Leonard Swidler proposed a sort of “Decalogue” for the interfaith dialogue: « 1. The purpose of dialogue is to increase understanding. 2. Participants should engage in both interfaith and interrreligious dialogue. 3. Participants should be honest and sincere. 4. Participants should assume that


other participants are equally honest and sincere. 5. Each participant should be allowed self-definition. 6. There should be no preconceptions as to areas of disagreement. 7. Dialogue can only occur between equals. 8. Dialogue can only occur where there is mutual trust.9. Participants must be self-critical of their religious traditions. 10. Participants must attempt to experience how the traditions of others affect them holistically. » After the Vatican II Council, a special commission inside the Catholic Roman Curia was created, namely the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. In its 1991 document “Dialogue and Proclamation”, the Council clarified that « In the context of religious plurality, dialogue means all positive and constructive interrreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom. It includes both witness and the exploration of respective religious convictions. » b) Relevance of interfaith dialogue from a Catholic point of view The creation of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and the many official documents on the topic reflects the special attention which the Catholic Church has paid to interfaith dialogue in the last 40 years. This favorable attitude is primarily rooted in the conviction that the merciful love of God is offered freely to everybody, and such offer should be made “visible” and “touchable” through the human structures of the Church. Secondly, Catholic availability to interfaith dialogue is strengthened by Jesus’ explicit commandment to love each other beyond the borders of the community of believers. Thirdly, the recognition of being part of an ever pluralistic society discloses to the Catholic Church the need for fostering common values, rather than stressing religious differences. Fourthly, by allowing themselves to be questioned by others, Catholics would achieve a significant purification of the basic elements of their faith. Finally, interfaith dialogue signifies a worthy approach to the “mystery of unity” of humankind constituted by the presence of God in every single human being. c) Emerging need for interfaith dialogue In the modern world scenario, marked by “preventive” wars, terrorist threats, suicide bombers, genocides, dangerous fanaticisms and religious discriminations, interfaith dialogue represents an emerging need, which was well articulated in the final declaration of the participants in the Symposium on “Spiritual Resources of the Religions For Peace” (Rome, 16-18 January 2003). « As conflicts divide neighbors and nations and the threat of war hangs over us like a shadow, too many people see and employ religion as a force of divisiveness and violence, rather than a force for unity and peace. […] The talk of war has intensified in recent months, but there has not been much increase in the talk of peace. Dedicated efforts are needed to examine how, in a world that is increasingly interconnected, we can find new ways to respect our religious differences while forging peaceful bonds based on our common humanity. […] In the interrelated context of our contemporary lives, interrreligious cooperation is no longer an option but a necessity. One could say that to be religious today is to be interrreligious. Religion will prosper in this century only to the extent that we can maintain a sense of community among people of different religious beliefs who work together as a human family to achieve a world of peace. »


1. An overview of the regional figures on religion A quick overview of the religious patterns in East and Southeast Asia reveals an interesting variety of scenarios, which are made even more exciting by the massive international migration flows within the region. Here are the figures for some of the countries involved in the phenomenon either as countries of origin or destination. a) Countries of origin Philippines The Philippines can claim its uniqueness as the only “Christian” country in Asia because over 90% of the population are Christians. Of the Christian population, 83% are Roman Catholics, 9% are Protestants. The rest of the population are Muslims (5%) and members of other religions (3%). Thailand Although, according to the 2000 census, 94% of its population are Theravada Buddhists. Thailand is known for its religious tolerance, but the king is constitutionally required to be a Buddhist and upholder of the faith. Of the remaining 6% of the population, 3.9% are Muslims, 1.7% Confucianists, 0.4% Catholics and 0.2% Christian Protestants. Indonesia About 88% of the population are Muslims. Roughly 5% are Christian Protestants, 3% are Catholics, 2% are Hindus and 1% are Buddhists. While the country is predominantly Muslim, the government is secular and does not subscribe to a state religion. Vietnam The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, adopted in 1980, proclaims that "citizens enjoy freedom of worship.” The major religious traditions in Vietnam are Buddhism (70%), Catholicism (10%) Christian Protestantism (6%) and Islam (0.7%). b) Countries of destination Taiwan Taiwan is a country of various religious beliefs. There are currently thirteen registered religions on the island practiced by nearly half the residents of Taiwan. These religions include Buddhism (21%), Taoism (20%), Catholicism (1.5%), Christian Protestantism, Hsuan-yuan Chiao, Islam, Li-ism, Tenrikyo, Baha'i, T'ienti Teachings, Tien Te Chiao, I-Kuan Tao, and Mahikarikyo. South Korea Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed in South Korea, and there is no national religion. There also is little uniformity of religious belief and a relevant percentage of syncretism. Only 42% of the population declare to belong to an organized religious community. The official figures are as follows: Buddhism 20%, Christian Protestantism 16%, Catholicism 5%, Confucianism 1%, Shamanist, Chondogyo and other 0.7%. Singapore The variety of religions is a direct reflection of the diversity of races living in Singapore (Chinese, Malay and Indian). At a general level, the more followed religions are Taoism (31%), Buddhism (28%), Islamism (18%), Christian Protestantism (6%), Catholicism (4%), and Hinduism (4%).


Hong Kong Hong Kong has a multicultural population with a Chinese majority (98%). The Chinese profess three primary religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. There are also Muslims, Catholics, Christian Protestants, Jews and Hindus. Japan Japanese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all, religious practices do not play a big role in the everyday life of most Japanese people today; only 30% of them believe in a religious creed. The official figures reveal that 84% observe both Shintoism and Buddhist, while the remaining 16% profess different religions, including Christian Protestantism, (0.4%), Catholicism (0.3%). Malaysia

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, but the federal Constitution states that « …other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation. » (Part I, 3.1). 58% of the population is Muslim, 22% Buddhist, 6% Christian Protestant and 3% Catholic. 2. Preliminary observations International migration in East and South East Asia involves frequently a new and challenging religious experience. Preliminary observations reveal the existence of several patterns, according to the many possible “combinations”. Some of them may be described as follows. •

In the case of Philippine workers migrating to predominantly Muslim countries, belonging to the “majority group” (in the country of origin), with all the respective securities and privileges, is changed into belonging to a “minority group” (in the country of destination), with all the respective uncertainties and eventual discriminations (real or felt like).

Migration to a country religiously similar to one’s home country does not necessarily involve a successful experience. For example, Indonesian migrants going to Malaysia do not move to a different religious milieu and yet, their experience of Islam may be different from the one back home. Their coming across injustice and exploitation in Malaysia may also lead them to questions about the authenticity of Islam.

Migration to countries like Singapore, where there is an official policy of “multiculturalism” and attention to minorities, should guarantee a suitable religious environment for all the foreign workers. The availability of mosques, churches or temples provide Muslim, Catholic or Hindu migrants access to public worship. However, they may not be able to practice their faith because of work conditions (e.g., no day off on Sundays, the day of worship for Catholics).

In Japan, Taiwan and South Korea there is no official religion, and there is no official policy restricting migrants’ religious expression. This situation in a sense may be called “de facto religious pluralism.” However, there is no conscious effort either on the part of the receiving society to facilitate or encourage migrants to practice their religion. Due to the high levels of uncertainty and vulnerability which often characterize the migration experience, this lack of support may severely affect the foreign workers’ religious life.

Religious encounters are not only between migrants and the receiving society, but also among migrants themselves, especially when they come from different countries with different religious backgrounds. Moreover, there are often notable differences in religious practices among foreign workers with similar faith originating from different countries.


These different contexts may have implications for migrants’ religious life. Although in this case observations have been limited to the Catholic component, from a quick look at other reports (available on internet) it seems that some common patterns may be identified. a) Religious crisis The new environment, especially when it is either totally different or secular, put generally on discussion migrants’ faith and belief. Their lack of “theological” knowledge and spiritual deepness make migrants get easily confused before persistent questioning by the receiving society. Moreover, materialism and pragmatism, which often characterize the migration experience, may weaken migrants’ spiritual beliefs. A long separation from the original environment and the lack of “social control” could erode the hold of familiar traditions, including those belonging to the religious sphere. b) Ambivalent reactions Facing a challenging new religious environment, migrants may show ambivalent reactions at an individual level. On one part, there is a common tendency to practice faith in a more personal way, especially if there is little avenue to participate in more public worship. On the other, migrants might revive peculiar “religious” pratices which belong more to the superstition (or to the indigenous tradition) rather than to a structured cult. c) Group identity Once they arrive in the destination, it is a common pattern for migrants to look immediately for their religious/ethnic groups. Beyond the need to communicate in their own language, share their experience and receive emotional support, religious/ethnic groups are sought out to strengthen or reaffirm one’s personal identity, especially where such identity is jeopardized by a compulsory assimilation policy. Where there is no possibility to join a group, the collective or public expression of religious beliefs may diminish or it could foster syncretism or assimilation. d) The role of national ministries In the receiving countries, national ministries/pastors are observed to play normally an important role as “faith keepers” for migrants. Knowing better migrants’ religious traditions and languages, they may become cross-cultural mediators to the receiving societies and the local religious structures, which often show either indifference or circumspection.

3. Transnational dynamics International migration in East and Southeast Asia present an interesting case for transnational dynamics which involves the societies of both sending and receiving countries. Although only Catholic migrants have been the object of observation here, it seems that the following elements may apply also to other religious groups. a) Links with the community of origin Especially when migrants are active cult members, the deepest links with the community of origin belong to the spiritual dimension of life. Memories, dreams and aspirations, where families left behind are involved, become intentions of prayer. Communication with family members and relatives in the home country frequently includes reminders about faith and practice, as a powerful means to overcome loneliness and other difficulties overseas. b) Religious movements On the basis of different experiences, belonging to religious movements with branches overseas seems to grant some extra assurance for the preservation of one’s faith. In the case of Filipino migrants, religious movements like “El Shaddai” or a homegrown religion (or sect, according to some sectors) “Iglesia ni


Cristo” have constituted strong networks in the region, thanks to migrants. Foreign workers appear to obtain a real benefit from such memberships, because of the internal dynamics of personal recognition and appreciation which are started by adhesion to a particular religious movement. Sometimes social privileges and material advantages are also part of the reward for the faithful or new converts. c) Local communities As was mentioned before, migrating to country with similar religion does not imply necessarily a successful religious experience. Difficulties with local communities may rise from the natural diversities in language, practice and tradition within the same creed. Cases of discrimination of the new comers are not very rare, especially where the local structures are not so flexible to fit migrants’ expectations. It is noted also an increasing phenomenon of “religious mobility”, meaning the easy switch from one religion to another one, according to the “offer” of the different religious groups. d) Holidays and return visits In the case of Catholic Filipino migrants, holidays and visits to the home country could spur the recovery or rediscovery of “old religious traditions”. Nevertheless, due to different religious experiences during migration, there are cases where the same traditions are either questioned or rejected by returning migrants. There Only seldom are new religious experiences reported to be transferred to migrants’ family and relatives.

4. Migration and interfaith dialogue Massive numbers of people on the move, religious pluralism, complexity of variables and transnational dynamics make international migration in East and Southeast Asia a challenging terrain for interfaith dialogue. In such a dialogue contemporary migrants are playing a double role: they are special “interlocutors” as well as a special “object”. a) Migrants as “interlocutors” The overseas labor experience usually leads migrants to a self-understanding as “guests” in a foreign land, who are expected to respect all aspects of the local reality. Such a “weak position”, which may border on discrimination and could lead to marginalization, may predispose migrants to “dialogue” with the local society and other possible partners. The recognition that there is nothing to lose in making such a move could be a starting point for a fruitful interfaith dialogue. b) Migrants as “object” In the context of East and South East Asia is also possible to refer to international migrants as the “object” for a meaningful dialogue and cooperation among different religions. Vulnerability, abuse, exploitation and marginalization, which characterize many migration experiences, constitute an emerging challenge for social justice in general and the extension of various forms of assistance – including spiritual – to migrants of any creed. To overcome the natural limits of every confessional action, the various religions should be open to the development of joint interfaith ventures. A special field of intervention could be the advocacy for migrants' rights' defense and promotion, lobbying together for the implementation of good national and regional policies, on the basis of some important international legal instruments (UN convention and ILO conventions). Interfaith dialogue on migrants should stress the “common values” (protection of life, dignity, honesty, tolerance, solidarity, etc.), which represent shared values of humankind. Interfaith dialogue on migrants should lead to the discovery that what unites human beings is much more than what divides them, aiming at the shared knowledge of belonging to the human family. Interfaith dialogue on migrants should call for a recovery of the spiritual dimension of human life as an alternative to the secularization of modern consumerism and materialism. Interfaith dialogue on migrants should also extend to families (both migrant families and families left behind), as the original “cell” of every community of believers.


c) Problematic religious dynamics Notwithstanding the Catholic Church’s 40-year experience in the pursuit of interfaith dialogue, there remain “structural” difficulties stemming from a different understanding of and availability to the dialogue itself. International migration in East and Southeast Asia plainly discloses the limited results obtained so far in this sense, revealing skepticism or age-old rivalries that have yet to be overcome. Fanaticism and proselytism can also stand in the way of a candid and frank interfaith dialogue. The inflexible emphasis of faith peculiarities commonly leads religious groups to a voluntary separation and self-marginalization from the rest of the society. If migrants are involved in such dynamic, it is probable that their already difficult process of integration in the receiving society might be jeopardized. Interfaith dialogue should be free of any hidden design of proselytism; even terminological classification like “infidels” and “unbelievers” may be a barrier and therefore should be avoided.

Conclusion In the context of contemporary international migration in East and Southeast Asia, interfaith dialogue represent an important key to cross-cultural integration and peaceful coexistence. To overcome the difficulties mentioned above, the formation and training of the would-be interlocutors should constitute a real priority in the agenda of the different creeds willing to be involved in the dialogue. The last official document of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of migrants, “Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi”, published in April 2004, stresses the importance of such formation and training: « Societies today are more and more mixed as regards religion owing in part to migration. They thus require of Catholics a convinced willingness for true interrreligious dialogue. To this end both the ordinary Catholic faithful and pastoral workers in local Churches should receive solid formation and information on other religions so as to overcome prejudices, prevail over religious relativism and avoid unjustified suspicions and fears that hamper dialogue and erect barriers, even provoking violence or misunderstanding. Local Churches will take care to include such formation in the educational programmes of their seminaries, schools and parishes. » (No. 69).


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