Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), will be visiting four Asian countries from 26 February to 9 March. Laos, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Pakistan will be receiving their first official visit from a WCC general secretary. The visit will assure Christian communities living in a minority situation that they have the support of the worldwide ecumenical family.
The packed agenda that awaits Raiser during his twelve-day visit includes contacts with churches and Christian institutions, leaders of the majority Buddhist and Muslim religions, representatives of civil society and government officials. In addition to expressing solidarity, the visit should also help to strengthen inter-faith links and enhance relations between local churches and their respective governments.
Laos (26-27 February)
The first stop on the journey is the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Poverty and lack of health care and education are just some of the many problems facing this communist country which is still suffering the after-effects of the Vietnam war and has recently shifted to a market economy system.
Seen in the past as agents of the West, the churches have entered a new phase in their relations with the country's authorities. Buddhism is the major religion in the country; the Protestant church is small but growing rapidly.
The WCC general secretary will have discussions in the capital Vientiane with communist party and government officials, the head of the country's Buddhist community and Roman Catholic church leaders. He will also visit a hospital run by Buddhist monks.
"Dr Raiser's visit will mark a breakthrough in the life and witness of the century-old Evangelical Church of Laos, which is looking forward to becoming a member of the WCC in the near future," said Matthews George, WCC Asia secretary.
Thailand (27 February - 2 March)
Second stop on the visit is Thailand. Hard hit by the Asian economic crisis in 1997, the country is in a chaotic social and political situation, and is experiencing the negative results of globalization and neo-liberal policies, with rising levels of poverty and unemployment.
Although this is a Buddhist country and the Christian church is tiny, Thailand has hosted a number of international ecumenical events and mission conferences. The local churches' contribution to social development is widely recognized.
Raiser will have conversations with the leaders of the Church of Christ in Thailand and visit some of its establishments in Bangkok, where he will also preach at an ecumenical service. Also on the agenda are meetings with other church leaders and the heads of various institutions, as well as with senior representatives of the Buddhist and Muslim communities and the Roman Catholic Church.
The WCC general secretary will also visit a rehabilitation centre for AIDS sufferers in Chiangmai and lecture to staff and students at the theological faculty of Payap University.
"The general secretary's visit will help to raise the church's morale and give it greater visibility in society," George said.
Myanmar (03-05 March)
Myanmar, formerly Burma, will be the third leg on the journey. Governed by a military regime, the country faces political turmoil, problems of poverty, internal displacement, as well as ethnic tensions.
Religious freedom in this predominantly Buddhist country has been restricted in many ways. The fact that the general secretary of the WCC was granted an official visa at the request of the National Council of Churches represents a major shift in church/state relations.
Raiser will have meetings in the capital Yangon with leaders of the Council of Churches, with staff and students at the country's leading theological seminary, where he will give a lecture, and with senior officials of the military government. He will also have conversations with national Buddhist leaders and visit educational centres for the blind and the deaf.
"Dr Raiser's meeting with the Supreme Patriarch of Theravada Buddhism will help the local churches to strengthen the relations between the two faiths. This is especially important given the emerging trend of mistrust that has sprung up between the different religious groups in the country," George explained.
Pakistan (07-09 March)
The fourth and last stage of the journey will be Pakistan, a majority Muslim country, governed by a military regime until October 2002. As an ally of the United States in the campaign in Afghanistan and in the international coalition against terrorism, the government faces strong tensions with Islamic militants. These could flare up in case of a military attack on Iraq.
The situation for the Christians and churches in the country is difficult because extremist groups identify them with the Christian West. Radical Islamic militants have attacked Christian individuals, churches, hospitals and schools.
Raiser will meet church leaders in Lahore and take part in the inauguration of the new National Council of Churches building. He will also have conversations with senior government officials in Islamabad and with representatives of non-governmental organizations, besides attending an ecumenical service in the protestant cathedral of Lahore and meeting with the leaders of the Muslim community.
"The churches are looking forward to the visit. It lets them know that they are not alone and that the worldwide church is with them," said Clement John, programme executive in the WCC's team on International Affairs, Peace and Human Security. "It will also be an opportunity for the WCC's general secretary to share and exchange views with members of Islamic groups and parties," he added.