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Advocates call for ‘greater role’ of Indigenous Peoples in Asian Church

Church leaders meet with the indigenous Lahu group in a village in Chiang Mai, Thailand on October 28, 2023. (Photo by LiCAS News) / November 6, 2023

Church leaders and advocates have expressed the need to create “inclusive sacred spaces” to provide a greater role for Indigenous Peoples (IP) within the Catholic Church.

In a meeting on “Indigenous Peoples, Synodality, and Church in Asia” in Chiang Mai, Thailand on October 26, some 16 church-based IP rights workers from six Asian countries called on Asian Churches “to effectively engage with the IPs and mainstream their voices as part of a synodal church”.

Malaysian Father Jojo Fung said Churches must create “countercultural and synodal communities” (CSCs) that should be recognized and respected by consecrated and ordained leaders as “movements of God’s Spirit from below”.

The Jesuit priest said it would help “forge a more equitable, inclusive, and polyhedral rather than an androcentric and pyramidal hierarchy in Asia”.

Fr. Fung emphasized that these communities would act as “counteracting the technocratic paradigm of the globalized and hegemonic neo-liberalist economic model,” which he said threatens the IPs and their identity. 

Good Shepherd Sister Magdalen Bui of Vietnam said in order to be inclusive with the IPs, the Church should move “from a Hierarchical to a Circular system”. 

“It needs the openness, the cooperation of the clergy and religious on many levels, especially in the parishes and from the grassroots,” she said. 

The missionary sister also expressed the need to “shift the Church ministries from charity to a right-based approach”. 

“It means we must recognize and treasure the presence, identity, tradition, and culture of Indigenous peoples in the Asian Church. The ministries should include them in all kinds of services, not only as beneficiaries but also providers of services,” she said. 

Father Albeiro Rodas of Cambodia said Indigenous communities bring many gifts and charisms to the Asian Church that the leadership must treasure. 

The priest believes that Pope Francis’ synod on synodality is inspired by these gifts and charisms – cultural diversity, traditions, languages, respect and care for Mother Earth, living in harmony with Creation, sense of community, solidarity, mutual respect, sharing, respect for elders, wisdom. 

He called on church leaders to advance a Church that is “more indigenous, inculturated,” adding, “We need to deepen Indigenous theology and indigenous pastoral work. 

Redemptorist priest Joseph Pham Toan said the voice of the IPs must be heard in the Church through their rich cultural heritage – rituals, stories, songs, dances, and ceremonies. 

He said a synodal Church must allow Indigenous leadership at all levels within the Church, “in the sense that Indigenous communities have greater control over their own affairs”.

Rays of light and truth through dialogue

Since its inception in 1970, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) has been promoting the “triple dialogue” with cultures, religions, and the poor, and more recently with nature as its fourth dialogue. 

The triple dialogue has helped the Asian Church to re-connect with believers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and other religions; and to find in them the “rays of light and truth” – opening paths of dialogue in sensitive and barren situations.

The FABC envisions a Church that is rooted in its indigenous context, embodying a church that is both indigenous and inculturated within a people. The Federation has consistently raised its concerns for the plight of the Indigenous Peoples in many pastoral assemblies.

However, at times, the Church with its internal struggles, has missed the connection with the people in the margins and failed to offer them the ‘bread of the Gospel’.


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