For much of its history the island of Taiwan has been ruled over by 'other' powers. The island was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century; the Spanish built a settlement in the north for a brief period but were driven out by the Dutch in 1642. Then, following the first Sino- Japanese war in 1895, Taiwan became part of the Japanese empire. In 1945, following the end of World War II, the nationalist government of the Republic of China took control of Taiwan. Then in 1949, after losing control of mainland China in the Chinese Civil war, Chiang Kai-shek ruled Taiwan as a single-party state for forty years until democratic reforms in the 1980s which led to the first-ever direct presidential election in 1996.
The effects of that particular era still reverberate amongst the Taiwanese today. The full horror of that period is still being adjusted to and I visited a prison with a guide who had himself been imprisoned more than once by the authorities for his political beliefs. As with other such regimes disappearances and executions were not uncommon and 'spies' were everywhere.
What has all this to do with a church article in Mid-Somerset?
To choose to attend church is everybody's free choice, rightly so, and attending church will not come at the cost of any persecution whichever denomination you choose. For us this has been the case since 1662.
I found within the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan a thirst for Justice and freedom. In Luke's gospel there is a story of Jesus reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah which is full of concern for those who need help. An ancient cry which marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Hearing this read aloud in a church in which persecution and oppression has been rife and within living memory elicits a very different feeling from when I read it in Somerset. The shared history of all peoples in Taiwan, of various religions and none, the knowledge that freedom has been hard won and is to be cherished, is still raw and present there in a way unknown here. The universal appeal of a call to justice and to equality echoes from pulpits across this island – an island previously known as Formosa, the beautiful island – the ancient cry for justice, equality, helping the stranger and supporting the downtrodden is why much of our scripture (and its inherent liberation theology) finds favour and brings solace in times of great trial.
The most recent and ever-present threat is from mainland China. In a speech by Chinese President XI Jingping on January 2, he said the island must be reunited with Beijing under "one country, two systems"- he insisted that Beijing would not renounce the use of force which he claimed was aimed at pro-independence forces in Taiwan. I heard a number of talks from pulpits denouncing China's claim to the Island and stressing the importance of emphasising Taiwan's independence and actively campaigning for it to be recognised by governments around the world; our own U.K. government does not as yet do so.
Whether because of persecution or a cause to rally around, the church in Taiwan is alive and vibrant with people committing time and energy to seeing that they are fully integrated within their local communities; both socially and politically active. More on how this is achieved next month.