By Michael Evans
A growing number of western Christian missionaries are setting their sights on Tibet, tacitly encouraged by Chinese officials hoping to erode the region’s ardent Buddhist faith, the Guardian reports.
One missionary based in Qinghai tells the newspaper that most of the city’s 400 some foreign residents are missionaries. Many aim to establish a long-term presence, a major change from previous generations of missionaries who passed through Tibetan areas on midnight “tract bombing” runs, scattering pamphlets in mailboxes and monasteries.
Their techniques have become more sophisticated over the past few decades. Some, like Chris and Sarah, have secured long-term Chinese visas by opening coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and guesthouses. Others are charity-minded doctors and aid workers. Evangelical organisations brainstorm new ways to make the Christian gospel accessible to Tibetans, such as screening Christian films in Tibetan dialects.
Robbie Barnett, a leading Tibet expert at Columbia University, tells the Guardian that while proselytising is officially banned in China, many local officials in Tibetan areas turn a blind eye to Christian missionaries for a wide range of reasons, including hopes that a growing Christian presence can dilute the power of Buddhism as a counterweight to Chinese rule.
For this very reason, winning converts in proudly Buddhist Tibet is no easy task.
Most Tibetan converts know the potential consequences of disclosing their spiritual leanings – social alienation, broken family ties – so keep them a closely guarded secret. Nobody knows how many there are: estimates range from zero to thousands.
Missionaries are also stymied by Chinese authorities’ efforts to exert political control over the region away from prying foreign eyes. A blanket ban on foreign residents exists in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, recently extended to restive Tibetan areas of neighboring Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan.