(Vatican Radio) Theologians and experts on Christianity in China are meeting in Hong Kong this week for an international conference examining the history of ecumenical and interfaith relations across the region.
The 10th annual conference of the ‘Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network’ will also be exploring broader issues of dialogue between faith and culture in China, as well as looking at the impressive growth rates of religious faith in other Asian countries too.
The encounter, entitled ‘Christianity and Religions in China: Past, Present and Future’ runs from July 20th to 24th. Among the organisers is Georgetown University Professor Gerard Mannion, founding chair of the Ecclesiological Investigations Network. He sat down with Philippa Hitchen to talk about the importance of Asia’s ecumenical and interfaith context for the whole of the Catholic world today…
Mannion notes that China ranks 7th in the world in terms of the size of its Christian population, though it’s very hard to obtain accurate statistics about the numbers of believers. Estimates range from 20 million, up to 120 million, with the number of Catholics believed to be around 9 million and Protestants the most numerous Christian community.
“Certainly religion is very important in China”, he says, with Christianity one of the five main faith communities. “People who practice faith”, he adds, “are almost double the number of Communist Party members”.
The conference will look back at the history of Christianity in the region as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, exploring the “deep and rich” traditions that exists across the different denominations. The Ecclesiological Investigations Network exists, Mannion recalls, “to encourage dialogue, to bring people together, to encounter different contexts and perspectives”, therefore it was long overdue for the group to hold an annual conference within the Asian setting.
Looking back to the last conference at Georgetown University focused on the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, Mannion says this year will build on that work and explore how much the Church as a whole can gain from the Asian Church’s “embracing of Vatican II”. Interfaith and ecumenical relations have been “a day to day factor for Asians a lot longer than it has been in the European and North American context”, Mannion explains, adding that the conference will feature “cutting-edge researchers” on theology, philanthropy and Catholic Social Teaching in China.
Noting the “blurring of the distinction” between philosophy and religion in the Asian faith communities, Mannion says in “post-Enlightenment” Western countries we have “compartmentalized” our faith so “we have a lot to learn from our Asian brothers and sisters”.