Religion, Western Presence in Southeast Asia

views updated

Religion, Western Presence in Southeast Asia

The religious mosaic of modern Southeast Asia shows a unique pattern; the mainland has been dominated by Theravada Buddhism, the Malay Archipelago by Islam, and the Philippines by Catholicism. The island of Bali has maintained a Hindu identity, and Vietnam a blend of Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism. The coming of the European colonial powers to Southeast Asia after the sixteenth century paved the way for the spread of Christianity in the region, as can be seen in Table 1.

Some parts of Southeast Asia were referred to in early Western literature as Chryse, that is, the Golden Island or the Golden Chersonese. Suggestions have been made that two early Christian sects, the Nestorians and Syriacs, might have established communities in Java and Sumatra (Indonesia) as early as the seventh century. Indeed, Southeast Asian ports became stopping stations for Europeans who were heading to or from the Yuan court (1279–1368) in Beijing, China. But it was only after 1497 that regular communication between the West and Southeast Asia became possible, and the work of evangelization of the region could begin in earnest.

Christianity was first introduced successfully to Southeast Asia by Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) missionaries and colonists. After having secured their position in Malacca (Malaysia) in 1511, the Portuguese began spreading Catholicism in the region. They and the Spanish contributed significantly to establishing Catholicism in Maluku (the Moluccas) and eastern parts of Nusa Tenggara (Timor and Flores) in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Tonkin and Annam in Vietnam.

The Portuguese mostly directed their missionary activities toward people who had not been brought under Buddhist or Islamic influence. In Maluku, the Portuguese concentration on making Ambon their center resulted in steady conversion and a support base for their trading and political competition with the Muslim rulers of Ternate. Interestingly, after a fifteen-month stay (1546–1547) in Maluku, the Spanish Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506–1552) remained unimpressed by the development of Catholicism in the area, and left for China.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese brought Roman Catholicism beyond Maluku to East Nusa Tenggara, and the extreme north of Maluku was missionized by Spaniards from Manila. In East Timor and Flores, the Portuguese successfully maintained themselves and their religion vis-à-vis the Dutch after 1605. Indeed, Catholicism in East Timor survived and even prospered under Portuguese rule. Some argue that the Indonesian occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 made Catholicism in the region even stronger (see Table 1).

A more successful evangelism was led by the Spanish Catholic orders in the Philippines. The Spanish came to Southeast Asia with a concrete and feasible agenda of missionary activities: Manila served as the center for various Catholic orders to evangelize and plant the church in the country and other parts of Asia. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the entire country at least nominally was in the fold of the Roman Catholic Church, with the exception of the mountainous aborigines and the Muslims of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.


Christianity has had a long history in the islands of Southeast Asia. When the Dutch took the Portuguese fortress of Ambon in 1605, however, Catholic missionaries were forbidden to come to Maluku. The Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church was the only Christian church in the region during the time of the Dutch United East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC). Under the VOC, founded in 1602, Christianity made some advances in Maluku, northern Sulawesi, and eastern Nusa Tenggara. Protestantism also spread via the VOC-occupied port towns on Java's northern coast beginning in the eighteenth century. Christians were also found on a number of more remote islands as a result of Portuguese or Spanish missionary work or of Protestant activities. But these groups were more or less neglected.

Under the Dutch Reformed Church, the Protestant congregations were formally led by church councils in various towns, such as Ambon, Kupang, and Batavia (now Jakarta). The church council of Batavia acted as the central governing body. By 1795 there were about 55,000 Protestant Christians and a smaller number of Roman Catholics in the archipelago.

After the dissolution of the VOC in 1799, the Dutch permitted proselytizing in the territory, and various Protestant missions capitalized on this evangelical freedom. Active Protestant missions commenced principally among the non-Muslim ethnic groups. Waves of European missionary activity intensified from the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially by the Nederlandsch Zendelingsgenootschap (Netherlands Missionary Society), established in 1797.

Affiliates of the London Missionary Society began to engage in mission work in eastern Java in 1814. The German Rhenish Missionary Society worked from 1836 in South Borneo and from 1861 on Nias and among the Toba Bataks in northern Sumatra, where eventually the largest Indonesian Protestant Church, the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, emerged. In 1820 Indonesia's various Protestant churches were brought under government supervision and united into a state-sponsored church, the Indies Church (Indische Kerk). From around 1900, this church began substantial missionary activities in Central Sulawesi, Maluku, and East Nusa Tenggara.

The earlier Nederlandsch Zendelingsgenootschap missionaries took care of the neglected Christian parishes in Java, and after 1830 they gradually reached neglected Christians in the outer regions, such as North Sulawesi and the Sangir Archipelago. Moreover, a number of new missionary bodies, informally linked with the Netherlands Reformed Church, were active in the Indies. They started work in West Papua (1855), North Sumatra (1857), the North Moluccas (1866), Central Sulawesi (1892), and South Sulawesi (1852/1913/1930). Southern Central Java and Sumba also became their mission field.

After World War I (1914–1918), the Basel Mission, a mission society founded in 1815 in Switzerland, took over missionary work in Kalimantan from the German Rhenish Missionary Society. These missions stressed the use of tribal languages instead of Malay, and aimed at individual conversion and sufficient Christian maturity. The Salvation Army came to Indonesia in 1894, the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1900, and the American Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1930. The Baptists reentered Indonesia in 1951 after they had abandoned their mission in the late nineteenth century. The Pentecostal movement was brought from Europe and the United States around 1920. In the twentieth century, the government allowed the Protestants to do missionary work in Sulawesi, the South Moluccas, and Timor.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, an independent Javanese Protestant community was founded in Central Java by Kiai Sadrach (d. 1924). Indigenous Protestant churches later conducted services in local languages. Protestantism was strongest in North Sumatra and in Maluku and Minahasa. But it was not until the 1930s that a number of autonomous churches emerged in various parts of Indonesia. Interestingly, it was the Japanese wartime occupation of Southeast Asia that gave local Christians the opportunity to assume prominent leadership positions and manage church affairs while the Europeans were interned or expelled. Most of these churches were later represented in the Indonesian Council of Churches.

The Dutch East India Company banned the promotion of Catholicism, and though formal freedom of religion was allowed with the fall of the company, many practical restrictions remained. The Catholic Church continued to be banned from certain regions, notably the Batak regions of northern Sumatra and the Toraja areas of Sulawesi, but from 1859 the church was allocated to Flores and Timor. Militarized Dominican friars claimed much of the islands of Flores and Timor for Portugal in the mid-sixteenth century, and they were the principal agents of Portuguese domination there until 1834, when the Portuguese government expelled them, following King Pedro IV's enunciation of an anticlerical policy in the same year.

Roman Catholic missions at first remained limited to the pastoral care of European Catholics. However, in time a number of societies were able to resume mission work, especially amongst the surviving congregations in Maluku, northern Sulawesi, Solor, Flores, and western Timor. The Roman Catholics concentrated their work in Flores (1860) and in Central Java (1894), but they also had important fields in North Sumatra (1878), West Kalimantan (1885), North Sulawesi (1868), Timor (1883), southeast Maluku (1888), and southern Papua (1905). From 1859 until 1902, all mission fields in Indonesia were served by the Jesuits, who established successful missions, schools, and hospitals throughout the islands of Flores, Timor, and Alor. After 1902, most areas were gradually handed over to other orders and congregations, and the Jesuits retained only the capital city of Batavia and Central Java.

Despite their small number, Catholics in Indonesia have been major players in modern sectors and professions. Their schools and publications also enjoyed fame and prestige among Indonesians.

Table 1 Percentage of Christians in "Southeast Asia"
CountryPopulationPercentage of all ChristiansCatholicsProtestants and others
∗ Despite the fact that Papua New Guinea is part of the whole island of Papua or Irian, it is not normally included in the standard geography of SEA; nor is it a member of ASEAN.
∗∗Sources: Nation Master Online 2003–2005; The Reformist Church Online; Catholic Missionary Union of England and Wales Online; International Religious Freedom Report 2004; UN Population Division.
Brunei Darussalam374,00010.00%7.55%2.45%
East Timor (Leste)876,00093.00%90.00%3.00%
Lao P.D.R.5,924,0002.00%0.70%1.30%
Myanmar (Burma)50,519,0004.00%1.05%2.95%
Papua New Guinea5,887,00076.00%32.00%44.00%
The Philippines83,054,00092.00%80.40%11.60%
Thailand (Siam)64,233,0000.50%0.44%0.06%


About 20 percent of Brunei's population is ethnic Chinese, of which half is Christian and half is Buddhist. There is also a large workforce composed mainly of expatriates that includes Muslims, Christians, and Hindus.

Despite early encounters with Christianity, the gospel did not take root in Brunei until the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1857, for example, a mission of the Milan Foreign Missions was started at Barambangan, across from Brunei Town (now called Bandar Seri Begawan). Italian Father D. Antonio Riva was put in charge of this mission for a few years (1855–1859). By this time, some members of the Chinese and indigenous communities in the interior were attracted to Christianity.

The period of the British residency (1905–1959) in Brunei paved the way for the coming of British officials and their families, followed by Indians and Chinese who had accepted Christianity. When the first Catholic priest began regularly visiting Brunei from the beginning of the twentieth century, a few Catholic families were already living there. Brunei was regarded as an outstation of Labuan (Malaysia) for Mill Hill missionaries who had worked in Labuan since 1881. By 1937 resident Catholic priests were appointed for Kuala Belait and Brunei Town. The old church in Brunei Town was rebuilt and named Saint George's Church in 1957. The Catholic Church opened schools for boys and girls in Kuala Belait in 1929. In 1997 Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) issued a decree for the establishment of the Prefecture Apostolic of Brunei.

From the beginning, the Anglican mission in Brunei fell under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Kuching, a port city in present-day Malaysia. Although an institution was created in 1848 to raise funds to support the first mission on the island of Borneo, it was only in 1854 that the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts became active in the region. The Borneo Mission Association was formed in 1909 to coordinate missionary activities in different parts of the island. The earliest Anglican parish in Brunei Town offered its services in a temporary shop building; only in 1934 was Saint Andrew's Church erected. This was followed in 1939 by the erection of Saint Philip's and Saint James's Church in Kuala Belait, mainly in response to the growing Christian population following the development of the oil industry in the area. Another church, Saint Margaret and All Hallows Church, was erected in Seria in 1954. Thus, in 2006 three Anglican parishes and several prestigious Christian schools prospered in Brunei Darussalam, which come under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Kuching.

In British Malaya (now part of Malaysia), the Christianizing effort remained largely confined to the British possessions of Melaka, Penang, and Singapore, where evangelical work among the Chinese migrant communities became an important part of the missionary enterprise. The Muslim populations of the Malay Peninsula proved unresponsive to Christian evangelism. In East Malaysia and Brunei, the indigenous adhered to traditional beliefs, the Chinese were both Buddhist and Christian historically, and the Malays were Muslims. In Singapore in the first decade of the twenty-first century, 15 percent of the population claimed to be Christian.

The formation of Christian churches in North Borneo is closely connected with the immigration of Chinese in the late 1860s. The British Chartered Company entered North Borneo in 1878 and offered new homes to Chinese settlers who founded the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. The Basel Mission also began work there in 1882 that has continued into the twenty-first century.

Introduced by Portuguese colonists about 1511, the Roman Catholic Church was almost exclusively confined to Malacca until late in the eighteenth century. But the arrival of Francis Xavier in 1545 heralded a great era of expansion. He founded a school from which Roman Catholic missionaries eventually spread to Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), and the other parts of the archipelago.

The Vatican sent several Catholic missions to North Borneo as early as 1687. In 1881 the Vatican confided the mission of North Borneo and Labuan to the Society for Foreign Missions of Mill Hill, England. The society served two major stations in Labuan and Kuching, and supported the missionaries who regularly visited parishes throughout Sabah and Sarawak. Beginning with a tiny school at the port city of Sandakan in 1883, numerous Roman Catholic mission schools were established, and Catholic churches and vicariates also sprang up in East Malaysia.

The training of national clergy greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the missions. When Portuguese influence declined at the end of the sixteenth century, French Catholics took over. Concerted attempts were made in the mid-seventeenth century to launch missionary activities under the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. From the late eighteenth century, French priests and nuns made a significant contribution. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, priests were trained locally. They established a seminary in 1806 at Penang, from which more than five hundred missionaries were sent to other Asian countries. The evangelism of Singapore was entrusted to the Society of Foreign Missions in 1830, and the society is still the predominant foreign group among Catholics in Sabah and Sarawak, where they began their missions in 1855. The expansion of the Roman Catholic Church has been rapid. Between 1885 and 1905, for example, the Chinese Catholic congregations trebled in numbers. Since the 1970s, leadership of the local Catholic Church has been entirely in Malaysian hands.

Protestant missions in the region initially followed the British flag. The London Missionary Society started its missions in Malaya and Singapore in 1814. The first Presbyterian church in Singapore was established in 1841. After the London Missionary Society officially left Malaya for China in 1847, more churches were founded and evangelism among the Chinese began. By 1925 there were nine Presbyterian congregations. After World War II (1939–1945), a further expansion of the Presbyterian Synod occurred. In 1962 the Chinese Presbyterian Synod formed three presbyteries: Singapore, South Malaysia, and North Malaysia. In 1971 the expatriate congregations decided to join the Chinese Synod and to form the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and Malaysia.

Following the Presbyterians, the Anglicans planted churches in Penang in 1819 and Singapore in 1834. The Anglican mission to the Chinese and other nationals was launched in 1856. Since 1970, Malaysia and Singapore have seen the formation of two independent Anglican dioceses. After launching missionary work in Sarawak and Labuan in 1854, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel set up a center in Sandakan in 1882.

Other well-established Christian groups, such as the Brethren, Methodist, Lutheran, and Evangelical churches, also launched missions in Malaysia from the mid-nineteenth century. The Brethren focused on church planting in Penang (1859), Singapore (1866), and later in other cities of the Malay Peninsula. Many of the leaders in interdenominational movements in Malaysia and Singapore have come from among the Brethren.

The Methodists began their missions in the bustling port city of Singapore in 1885. From the beginning they focused on planting churches and schools among Asians. Churches were founded in Singapore (1885), Malaya (1891), and Sarawak (1900), and Methodist schools often followed or even predated church planting. The Australia-based Borneo Evangelical Church, founded in 1928, won the conversion of many indigenous groups in Sarawak. Following their successful mission in Sabah, in 1907, the Lutherans initiated church planting in Kuala Lumpur among the Tamils. After World War II, American and Swedish Lutherans began missionary work in Malaya. In 1962 the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Malaya and Singapore was formally constituted.

In addition, smaller but mobile and aggressive evangelical groups, such as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, the Evangelical Free Church, the Southern Baptists of the United States, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Mormons, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, have contributed to church growth in Malaysia and Singapore.


The Philippines has been a predominantly Roman Catholic nation since the seventeenth century. Roman Catholic missionary work dates back to the mid-sixteenth century. The conquest of Manila in 1571 by the Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legaspi (d. 1572) paved the way for Catholic evangelism in the Philippines. Despite the successful military pacification after 1571, Catholicism had yet to be propagated among the Filipino population. Once started, the work of evangelization went smoothly and rapidly.

The first Catholic bishop in the Philippines, the Spanish Dominican Domingo de Salazar (1512–1594), arrived in 1581, accompanied by a few Jesuits. More friars from the major orders, such as the Augustinians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and the Recollect Fathers, soon followed, and eventually dominated the archbishopric of Manila. The members of these orders penetrated farther and farther into the interior of the country, and established their missions. Religious books were written in the local dialects, and Catholic schools were opened. The early missionaries emphasized church planting in new settlements, along with the conversion of chiefs (datu), based on the principle of cuius regio eius religio (whose the region is, his religion). Since the principle of enforcing the religion of the ruler on the people had been endorsed by early Christian states, it was natural that Spanish missionaries adopted this approach in their work in the Philippines focusing, first of all, on winning the hearts of local chiefs.

From the beginning, the Spanish establishments in the Philippines were more like missions in character than colonies. They were founded and administered in the interest of religion rather than commerce or industry. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church enjoyed a great deal of power on the local level. Even in the late nineteenth century, the friars of the Augustinian, Dominican, and Franciscan orders conducted many executive functions of government at the local level. The Catholic orders also had economic strength by virtue of their extensive landholdings. Moreover, the friars' monopoly on education guaranteed their dominant position in society and thus their control over cultural and intellectual life. When in 1863 the Spanish government introduced public primary education in the Philippines, the Catholic orders, including the Jesuits, remained indispensable.

There were several religious movements initiated by Filipinos during the nineteenth century. One of the most serious occurred in the 1840s. The movement was headed by a renegade cleric, Apolinario de la Cruz (1815–1841). Later, some native clergy participated in a revolt against Spanish authority in Cavite in 1872. Three Filipino priests who were implicated in the uprising were executed. Moreover, although the Katipunan, a Filipino revolutionary society that emerged in 1896, originally did not explicitly endorse Catholic symbolism, it provided new life to the volatile antifriar movement when Gregorio Aglipay (1860–1940), a Catholic priest, was appointed chaplain-general of the rebel forces. In 1902 Aglipay accepted the leadership of the Philippine Independent Church (also known as the Aglipayan Church, which was founded and supported by Aglipay's followers) as its first supreme bishop. Under the slogan of religious independence, the church soon attracted new members, amounting to one-fifth of the total population.

The American Period and After

Following the establishment of American sovereignty in the Philippines in May 1898, the first non-Spanish archbishop of Manila, American Jeremiah Harty (1903–1916), a secular priest, who unlike a regular priest was not a member or friar of the locally dominant Roman Catholic orders, was appointed by the Vatican in 1903. In 1949 Gabriel M. Reyes (1892–1952), a Filipino, became the first Filipino archbishop of Manila. From the beginning, U.S. presidents and their representatives in the Philippines defined American colonial mission as tutelage, preparing the country for eventual independence. In 1902 the Catholic Church was formally disestablished as the state religion of the Philippines, and freedom of worship and the separation of church and state were instituted. After negotiations, the church agreed to sell the Spanish friars' estates and promised the gradual substitution of Filipino and other non-Spanish priests in the friars' posts.

Protestant missionaries first came to the Philippines following the U.S. takeover. The earliest groups included Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. After World War II, many more groups entered the country, including denominational missions aiming at church planting and nondenominational agencies undertaking evangelism and training among the youth.

The first Presbyterian missionary arrived in Manila in 1899. From 1899 to 1902, eight Presbyterian church-planting missions worked in the Philippines, laying out a noncompetitive plan to evangelize the islands, commonly known as the comity agreements. Indeed, in 1901 these Protestant missionaries agreed to form the Evangelical Union and to fix geographical areas for each mission. Manila was kept open to all missionaries. However, two churches—the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Episcopalians—did not endorse the noncompetitive plan.

Movement toward an organic union of Protestant churches in the Philippines resulted in 1929 in the holding of the first general assembly of the United Evangelical Church, the forerunner of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, formed in 1948. The majority of the leaders who formed the new church were Filipinos. As of 2006, however, American Baptists and Methodists remained separate and distinct bodies.

The Protestant population of the Philippines continues to grow. The gains are chiefly from conversions among nominal Roman Catholics and Aglipayans. The principal Protestant churches, once predominantly rural, are becoming stronger in the towns and cities and evolving into urban middle-class denominations. Although the pioneer churches have continued to grow, a few non-Union-related groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, Assemblies of God, and the Foursquare Gospel Church, have grown even faster.


Mainland Southeast Asia provides an interesting pattern of Christian evangelism. In the countries that endorsed Theravada Buddhism, Christian missionaries, as can be seen in Table 1, were not very successful in evangelism, except among minorities and tribal groups, such as the Karen in Burma and the Hmong in Laos. In Vietnam, the situation is slightly different. In Cambodia and Siam, Portuguese Dominicans began to arrive as early as 1555. However, until 1584, local opposition prevented these missionaries from settling for long in the country. In Burma, Portuguese mercenaries under Diogo Soarez de Mello (d. after 1551) were instrumental in the wars of the Toungoo conquerors in the mid-sixteenth century. Overall, the Portuguese indirectly contributed to the introduction of Catholicism to various parts of mainland Southeast Asia.

The Spanish launched several missionary activities on the Southeast Asian mainland. In response to the invitation of King Satha (r. 1576–1594) of Cambodia, missionaries were sent from Manila in 1593. Rivalry among the elite in Phnom Penh, however, led to the elimination of Spanish influence in Cambodia by 1603 as Siam became increasingly powerful in the country.

In 1887 French Indochina was formed. Vietnam, which had been fertile ground for Confucianism, also saw the growth of Catholicism, whereas Cambodia and Laos, which had endorsed Theravada Buddhism, did not become an easy target for Christian evangelism.


Christianity was introduced to Indochina in the beginning of the sixteenth century by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries. However, the early missions seem to have made little impression on the population. In 1615 the Jesuits established a permanent mission in Annam in central Vietnam. Leading Jesuit missionaries advocated a policy of adaptation to traditional culture. Among them, the French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660) conceived a romanized Vietnamese alphabet (quôc ngu) that is still in use today. He also succeeded in baptizing many Vietnamese. After 1658, under the direction of missionaries from the French Society of Foreign Missions, Catholic churches were planted, parishes established, seminaries built, and many Catholic foundations instituted.

Jesuit missionaries spread their activities in practically all fields. They focused on influencing the cultural and political top echelons of Vietnamese society. The rapid growth of Catholics in the country, however, led both the Nguyen (circa 1510–1954) in the south and the Trinh rulers (1539–1787) in the north and the Trinh rulers in 1631 and 1663, respectively, to launch persecution of Catholics. By 1663 Catholicism had been formally banned in Vietnam. Only at the end of the eighteenth century were some French priests able to enter the country by acting as intermediaries in military affairs. Bishop Pierre Pigneau de Behaine (1741–1799) performed this service for Nguyen Anh (1762–1820), who in 1802 proclaimed himself the emperor with the title Gia Long. The presence of Christian communities came to be openly tolerated in Vietnam during this period. In fact, the Catholic Church at this time was more successful in Vietnam than in any other part of Asia except the Philippines. Spanish friars were active in Tonkin in northern Vietnam, and French priests worked in Annam and Cochin China in the south.

The privileges that the Catholic Church had enjoyed under Gia Long quickly gave way to excesses, which generated a negative response from the Vietnamese. Gia Long's successor, Minh Mang (1792–1841), was dominated by conservative Confucianists. In 1825 he inaugurated a policy aimed at harassing Christian missionaries and converts. The court at Hue was particularly alarmed in the 1820s by the arrival of aggressive French missionaries. In fact, persecution of Christians became more violent after 1833. King Minh Mang ordered that all foreign priests be held at the capital as virtual prisoners, and ten Catholic missionaries were killed between 1833 and 1840.

Vietnam's Catholic communities reacted by organizing revolts that were often directed by missionaries and supported by French national and commercial interests. After 1841, the Catholic missions were boycotted and the practice of Catholicism was again banned, although French missionaries continued to enter Tonkin secretly from Portuguese Macao in southern China. The French eventually retaliated against the ban. War vessels were sent to Vietnamese ports, and in June 1862 the French imposed a treaty on Vietnam. One of its clauses provided the Catholic Church with total religious freedom.

Not surprisingly, Vietnamese Catholicism came to be associated with French colonialism. By 1893, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had become French colonies, and Roman Catholic missionaries were given privileges throughout the country. Indeed, prior to World War II, Catholics practically monopolized the entire civil and military administration.

When Catholics who resisted Vietnam's Communist guerrillas were defeated in the 1954 partition, many took refuge in the South, forming the largest Catholic concentrations around Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). In the north, major Catholic concentrations can be found in the provinces south of Hanoi. The unification of the two Vietnams in 1975 under Communist rule had a mixed effect on Christians. Despite many restrictions on religious missions, they were fundamentally allowed to evangelize, as long as they did not use religion against the state. In the mid-1990s Catholicism saw a modest revival and in 2004 the Vatican filled the vacant bishoprics, including the appointment of a cardinal for the country.

The first Protestant mission in the region was launched in the late 1820s by the British and Foreign Bible Society. Because of hostility from both the Vietnamese and the French, the society operated from abroad, particularly from Shanghai. In 1895 two missionaries from the American Christian and Missionary Alliance visited the north. In 1911 permission was granted by the French authorities to begin a Christian and Missionary Alliance mission in Da Nang in central Vietnam. The movement first spread north to Haiphong and Hanoi, and then by 1918 to Saigon and to other cities in the south. Missions among ethnic minorities, including the Montagnards in the south-central region, began in 1929.

The first Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries focused on the training of national workers and the widespread use of literature to evangelize the French colony. The period 1922 to 1940 was a fruitful phase for the Christian and Missionary Alliance missions in Vietnam, particularly in the Mekong Delta region and in central Vietnam. In 1928 the Vietnamese congregations were organized into a church body, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam.

The turning point in Vietnam's missionary history took place with the Pacific segment of World War II, as a series of wars erupted in Vietnam for the next four decades almost without interruption. Evangelization efforts underwent adjustments that resulted in mixed outcomes. However, the division of the country in 1954 into North Vietnam and South Vietnam left fewer than two thousand Evangelical Church of Vietnam members in North Vietnam. In the south, the church soon recovered its strength. Between 1954 and 1965, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam made great gains, and by the early 1970s the church was one of the most successful foreign missions of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The virtual monopoly of the organization came to an end when other missionary societies, such as the U.S.-based Seventh-Day Adventists and Assemblies of God, entered the south.

By the early twenty-first century, almost 70 percent of Vietnamese Protestants are ethnic minorities, especially those in the western and central highlands and rural villages. Hmong missionaries have contributed significantly to successful evangelism.


Roman Catholic missionary efforts began in the sixteenth century in Cambodia, but the Christian presence developed slowly. Portuguese missionaries arrived in the second half of the sixteenth century, but they had more success among the Vietnamese than among local Khmers. In 1658 Cambodia was included in the Apostolic Vicariate of Tonkin, administered by the Society of Foreign Missions. By 1842 there were four churches and approximately two hundred Roman Catholics in Cambodia.

In the mid-nineteenth century, numerous Vietnamese Catholics seeking refuge from persecution swelled the Cambodian Catholic population. In 1885 France declared Cambodia a protectorate. In 1953 Cambodia gained independence, and three years later the first Khmer priest was ordained. By 1962 the number of Catholics in Cambodia had increased to 62,000, but most of them were Vietnamese, Chinese, or European. In 1970 most Vietnamese Catholics were forced out of Cambodia by Khmer hostility, greatly reducing church membership.

From 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian government was seized by the Khmer Rouge, a repressive Communist regime that expelled all foreigners, including French missionaries, from the country. Many leaders of the Cambodian Catholic Church disappeared during this period. Following the signing of a peace treaty in 1991, the holding of elections in 1993, and the promulgation of a new constitution guaranteeing religious freedom, diplomatic relations were established with the Holy See (the office of the pope) in 1994, and in 1997 the Catholic Church was given official status by the new Cambodian government.

The American Christian and Missionary Alliance began a Protestant mission in the country in 1923. From the capital of Phnom Penh, evangelism and church planting were launched. By 1964 thirteen Protestant congregations were established in more than half of the provinces. The majority of the proselytes came from among the Khmer population. Missionaries also worked among the ethnic minorities in the northeastern part of the country, but they were forced to leave in 1965. Many returned in 1970 when Lon Nol (1913–1985) came to power.

During the regime (1975–1978) of Pol Pot (1925–1998), the leader of the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians, including Christians, were either massacred or fled the country. During the subsequent pro-Vietnamese regime, Protestants, like other religionists, were again able to congregate. In 1996 an Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia was founded. By 2006 some twenty-five Protestant denominations and congregations can be found in Cambodia, mainly in the capital city and in Battambang.


The capital city of Laos, Vientiane, possesses a special interest for Catholics as the scene of the first attempt to preach Christianity in the then-extensive Kingdom of Laos. Roman Catholic missionaries began visiting Laos in the seventeenth century, when the Portuguese Jesuit, Giovanni Maria Leria, proselytized in the country for five years until he was compelled to leave in December 1647. The Catholic missions did not resume their activities in Laos until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, concomitant with the French proclaiming a protectorate over the country. Although the Society of Foreign Missions began working in Laos in 1876 and established an apostolic vicariate on May 4, 1899, the country's Roman Catholic Church has been separated from that of Siam only since 1911. The mission won a significant number of proselytes in the late nineteenth century.

By 2006 most Lao members of the Roman Catholic Church were ethnic Vietnamese living in the most populous central and southern provinces of the country, where Rome has appointed three resident bishops.

The first Protestant mission in Laos was carried out by a Presbyterian missionary based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who regularly visited northern Laos beginning in 1872. In 1902 the Brethren churches in Switzerland sent two missionaries to preach the gospel in southern Laos. The Brethren focused on church planting, establishment of a Bible school, and translation of the Bible into the Lao language.

The American Christian and Missionary Alliance sent missionaries into northern Laos in 1928. From then until 1975, when all missionaries had to leave the country, the Christian and Missionary Alliance worked in northern Laos and the Swiss Brethren worked in the south. Throughout this period, the two missions maintained cordial relations; thus, the church was eventually able to proclaim itself a single united body, the Lao Evangelical Church.

A change of government in 1975 had a dramatic impact on the church. Despite the exodus of about half of all Lao Protestants in 1975, by the late 1990s there were over 160 churches in the country. Since the early 1990s, concomitant with increased freedom, the Lao Evangelical Church has formally organized into an official church body. Several foreign Christian organizations and churches have increased their work in Laos. The vast majority of believers and churches are located in rural areas. In 2006 only three Protestant churches were located in the cities.

Although the present government recognizes two Protestant groups—the Lao Evangelical Church and the Seventh-Day Adventists—it does not permit public evangelism. In periodic state-sponsored political seminars, for example, the population has been taught that Roman Catholicism is a remnant of French colonialism and Protestantism is a remnant of American imperialism. Nevertheless, such evangelical churches as the Methodists and the Jehovah's Witnesses have found ways to preach the gospel in the country.


Siam, officially renamed Thailand in 1939, has developed close ties with the Christian powers since the sixteenth century. Yet, like its Theravada Buddhist neighbors, it has not been fertile ground for Christianity.

The majority of Thai Roman Catholics are located in northeast Thailand and in Bangkok. Many are of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian origin. The earliest Christian incursions into Siam were by Catholic priests accompanying a Portuguese embassy of Alfonso de Albuquerque (d. 1515) in 1511; however, only in 1555 did the first resident Dominican missionaries arrive. They were followed in 1662 by missionaries from the Society of Foreign Missions under Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte (1624–1679), who set up his headquarters in Ayutthaya, where they found a sizeable Christian community.

The growth of the Society of Foreign Missions in Siam was clearly evident during the reign of King Narai (r. 1657–1688), who opened the country to foreigners and gave liberty to the missionaries to preach the gospel. Narai built closer ties with France and withdrew from the increasingly rampant Dutch power. On the other hand, the French influence in the country strengthened the role of the missionaries and the progress of evangelization. Between 1665 and 1669, the Society of Foreign Missions central seminary for Southeast Asia and the first hospital were erected in Ayutthaya. Despite the major debacle of 1688 and later restrictions, the Society of Foreign Missions continued working in Siam without interruption. More priests from Portuguese orders followed. They worked until the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, but the fruit of their evangelization was miniscule.

With the advent of the Chakri dynasty in 1782, particularly under the reign of kings Mongkut (1804–1868) and Chulalongkorn (1853–1910), the Catholic Church gradually enjoyed more peace, despite diplomatic complications between France and Siam in 1894. Significant results did not come until after World War II, however, when the community grew from approximately 3,000 Catholic adherents in 1802 to about 170,000 in 1972.

The Catholic Church in Thailand put great emphasis on building schools and convents, largely in Bangkok. Encouraged by the steady growth of the church, Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) divided the country into two church provinces in 1965 and appointed its first archbishop. By the early twenty-first century, the percentage of Thai clergy is increasing; half of the archbishops and bishops are Thai. In 2006 Thailand had two archbishops, eight bishops, thirty religious orders, and an apostolic delegate headquartered in Bangkok.

Protestants dominate in the north of the country. These are distributed among Thais and ethnic minorities. Protestantism was introduced to Siam through the works of diverse Protestant missionaries beginning in the 1810s. The first Protestant missionaries to live in Thailand, representing the Nederlandsch Zendelingsgenootschap and the London Missionary Society, arrived in 1828. In 1833 American Baptist missionaries arrived, and in 1837 they planted the first indigenous Protestant church in Southeast Asia, which survives today.

Early Protestant missionaries to Thailand saw the first fruits of their evangelism efforts mainly among the Chinese. The first American Presbyterian missionaries arrived in 1840. By 1910 the Presbyterian church was flourishing in the north. The English Disciples of Christ, who entered in 1903, joined their American counterparts in 1945 to evangelize within the Church of Christ in Thailand. The Seventh-Day Adventists arrived in 1918 and focused their activities on hospitals. The American Christian and Missionary Alliance followed in 1929, taking missionary responsibility for nineteen provinces in northeast Thailand.

Following World War II, new streams of Protestant missions grew steadily in Thailand, starting with the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade and the Finnish Free Foreign Mission. The largest of all these was the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, originally the China Inland Mission, which in 1949 sent hundreds of missionaries to all parts of the country. Their missions were followed both by major groups, such as the American Southern Baptists, the Church of Christ, the Scandinavian Pentecostal Mission, and the New Tribes Mission, and smaller ones, including the American Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Assembly of Canada, and the Japan Christian Missions.

Two Protestant church bodies have been officially recognized by the Thai government. They are the Church of Christ in Thailand and the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand. The Thailand Church Growth Committee, started in 1971, has served to bridge these two bodies with Baptist and Pentecostal organizations.


Although the majority of the population of Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) follows Theravada Buddhism, there are significant numbers of Christians, mostly Baptists but also some Catholics and Anglicans. The Kachin ethnic group in northern Burma and the Chin and Naga in the west are largely Christian, and Christianity is also widespread among the Karen and Karenni in the south and east. After World War II, the situation of Christian churches became more complicated when Christianity became a mark of identity for ethnic minorities that were opposed to the government in Yangon, the capital.

Christianity was introduced to Burma in the sixteenth century through the efforts of Roman Catholic missionaries and Portuguese traders and mercenaries. The actual work of evangelizing Burma did not begin until 1722 when two Barnabite fathers were sent there. In 1741 the Vatican mission was fully established after more Barnabites were sent to Burma. However, prolonged wars in Burma during the eighteenth century resulted in the termination of this mission. In 1842 Pope Gregory XVI (1765–1846) placed the Burmese mission under the Italian Oblates of Pinerolo, and appointed the first vicar apostolic, but the British invasion in 1852 led to the withdrawal of the mission almost immediately.

In response to the leadership vacuum in the Burmese vicariate, it was placed in 1855 under the control of the vicar apostolic of Siam for ten years. Burma was then divided into three independent vicariates: Northern, Southern, and Eastern Burma. In 1870 the vicariate of Eastern Burma was entrusted to the Milan Foreign Missions, and those in Northern and Southern Burma came under the control of the Society of Foreign Missions. The vicariate of Southern Burma was more successful in advancing Christianity than the other two, particularly among the Karenni. This is understandable in view of the intensity and number of rival Protestant missionaries in the north and east since the mid-nineteenth century and the near invincibility of Burmese Buddhism. The territorial division persists as of 2006, with three Catholic archdioceses headquartered in Mandalay, Taunggyi, and Yangon.

Protestant missionaries began their work in Yangon. The Baptist Missionary Society of England opened its first mission in 1807 and remained there until 1814. The London Missionary Society sent two missionaries to Yangon in 1808, but within a year the mission was abandoned. In 1813 an American Baptist began working in Burma and translated the Bible (1834). Other missions followed: Anglican (1852), Methodist (1879), Seventh-Day Adventist (1915), and Assemblies of God (1924). Efforts at evangelism made slow progress, however. While the Burmese Buddhist population showed little interest, the gospel was received by the highlanders, especially the Karen, Shan, Kachin, and Chin, beginning in the 1820s.

The Reformed churches owe their existence in the country both to missionary efforts and spontaneous movements. Reformed churches serve different parts of the Burmese hill population, especially the Chin and Kachin. American Baptist missionaries started work among the Chin in 1899. They remained in the Chin Hills until 1966, when the socialist government expelled all foreign missionaries from Burma. Apart from evangelism, the Baptists planted Bible schools and translated the Haka Bible.

A few American Pentecostal missionaries from the Assemblies of God were sent to Burma. Accompanying them were Pentecostal missionaries from Sweden and Finland, and the Go Ye Fellowship, which labored in Myanmar prior to World War II. In spite of the war and the absence of missionaries, especially after 1966, the Christian church showed progress under the leadership of indigenous workers.

Under the leadership of Assemblies of God missionaries from the United States, indigenous Pentecostal believers took up the challenge of evangelizing their own communities. This occurred in earnest after 1966, when authority and responsibility were handed over to the national church leaders. Local churches soon became centers for evangelism, outreach, and ministry among different people and groups in the capital city, as well as among the Kachin and Chin in the north. After 1966 many street preachers were trained by Burmese Christian leaders, and a Bible training school started by missionaries continued to operate.

see also London Missionary Society; Netherlands Missionary Society; Religion, Roman Catholic Church.


Andaya, Leonard, and Barbara Watson Andaya. A History of Malaysia, 2nd ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Aritonang, Jan Sihar. Mission Schools in Batakland (Indonesia), 1861–1940. Translated by Robert R. Boehlke. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994.

Aritonang, Jan Sihar. "The Encounter of the Batak People with Rheinische Missions." Ph.D. diss., Utrecht University, Netherlands, 2000.

Buchholt, Helmut. "The Impact of the Christian Mission on Processes of Social Differentiation in Indonesia." Working Paper No. 163. Southeast Asia Programme, University of Bielefeld. Bielefeld, Germany, 1992

Cady, John F. Southeast Asia: Its Historical Development. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Catholic Missionary Union of England and Wales. Available from

Cummins, J. S. Jesuit and Friar in the Spanish Expansion to the East. London: Variorum Reprints, 1986.

Durand, Frédéric. Catholicisme et protestantisme dans l'île de Timor, 1556–2003: Construction d'une identite' chre'tienne et engagement politique contemporain. Toulouse, France: Arkuiris; Bangkok: IRASEC, 2004.

Gall, Timothy L., ed. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life; Vol. 3: Asia & Oceania. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998.

Gani Wiyono. "Timor Revival: A Historical Study of the Great Twentieth-Century Revival in Indonesia." Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 4 (2) (2001): 269-293. Available from

Guillot, C. L'Affaire Sadrac: Un essai de christianisation à Java au XIXe siècle. Paris: Association Archipel, 1981.

Harper, George W. "Philippine Tongue of Fire? Latin American Pentecostalism and the Future of Filipino Christianity." Journal of Asian Mission 2 (2) (2000): 225-259.

Hunt, Robert, Lee Kam Hing, and John Roxborough, eds. Christianity in Malaysia: A Denominational History. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk, 1992.

Keyes, Charles F. "Why the Thai Are Not Christians: Buddhist and Christian Conversion in Thailand." In Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation, edited by Robert Hefner, 259-283. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Kipp, Rita Smith. The Early Years of a Dutch Colonial Mission: The Karo Field. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Kipp, Rita Smith, and Susan Rogers, eds. Indonesian Religions in Transition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Lee, Raymond L. M., and Susan E. Ackerman. Sacred Tension: Modernity and Religious Transformation in Malaysia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Lessard, Micheline. "Curious Relations: Jesuit Perception of the Vietnamese." In Essays Into Vietnamese Pasts, edited by K. W. Taylor and John Whitmore, 137-156. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Maggay, Melba P. "Early Protestant Missionary Efforts in the Philippines: Some Intercultural Problems." Journal of Asian Mission 5 (1) (2003): 119-131. Available from

Mansurnoor, Iik Arifin. "Historical Burden and Promising Future Among Muslim and Christian Minorities in Western and Muslim Countries." In Islam & the West: Dialogue of Civilizations in Search of a Peaceful Global Order, edited by Dick van der Meij et al., 111-147. Jakarta, Indonesia: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Islamic State University, 2003. Available from

Nguyen Huy Lai, Joseph. La tradition religieuse, spirituelle, et sociale au Vietnam: Sa confrontation avec le christianisme. Paris: Beauchesne, 1981.

Osborne, Milton. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History, 8th ed. Saint Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2000.

Rabb, Clinton. "At the Crossroads for Mission in Vietnam." New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of the United Methodist Church (May-June 2001). Available from

Reformist Church online. Available from

Ricklefs, Merle C. A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200, 3rd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Rooney, John. Khabar Gembira (The Good News): A History of the Catholic Church in East Malaysia and Brunei, 1880–1976. London: Burns and Oates; Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia: Mill Hill Missionaries, 1981.

Saunders, Graham. Bishops and Brookes: The Anglican Mission and the Brooke Raj in Sarawak, 1848–1941. Singapore and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Schrauwers, Albert. Colonial "Reformation" in the Highlands of Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, 1892–1995. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Smith, Ralph. Viet-Nam and the West. London: Heinemann, 1968.

Steinberg, David. Burma. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500–1700: A Political and Economic History. London and New York: Longman, 1993.

Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Tate, D. J. M. The Making of Modern South-East Asia: Vol. 2: The Western Impact: Economic and Social Change. Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Teixeira, Manuel. The Portuguese Missions in Malacca and Singapore (1511–1958). 3 vols. Lisbon: Agência-Geral do Ultramar, 1961.

United Nations Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. World Population Prospects: 2004 Revision. Available from

U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. International Religious Freedom Reports. Reports for 2001 to 2005 available from

Wheatley, Paul. The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula Before A.D. 1500. Kuala Lumpur, University of Malaya Press, 1961; Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1973.

About this article

Religion, Western Presence in Southeast Asia

Updated About content Print Article


Religion, Western Presence in Southeast Asia