Presbyterians helped lead the way in Taiwan

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29 March 2000 (Newsroom) -- When newly elected Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian visited the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Taipei last week it was more than just a courtesy call. Though its members comprise just 1 percent of the population, Taiwanese Presbyterians have held a leading role in an independence movement that helped set the stage for the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) narrow March 18 defeat of the nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT), which had ruled the island since World War II.

"The Presbyterian Church was about the only organization in society that was able to retain a substantial independence from the KMT," said U.S.-born Dr. Linda Gail Arrigo, a Taiwan scholar and activist in the island's democratic movement since 1975. "It's incredible that they did this under martial law."

Established more than 100 years ago, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan founded the island's first modern schools and medical facilities. "They were always the modernizing sliver of a highly educated portion of society," said Arrigo, a former member of the DPP and now international affairs officer of the Green Party Taiwan.

In 1947 Taiwan came under the control of the Chinese Nationalists of Chaing Kai-shek, which placed the island under martial law until 1987. For the first half of the 20th century, Taiwan was ruled by Japan. After Japan's defeat in 1945, Chaing, who was fighting a losing civil war in mainland China, retreated to the island, claiming occupation "on behalf of allied forces." KMT leaders have insisted that Taiwan is a province of China from which they are China's legitimate rulers, while communist Beijing authorities -- playing off the KMT's acknowledgement of "one China"-- claim sovereignty over Taiwan. The island's opposition leaders have asserted that neither is correct, and that Taiwan is an independent state over which China has no rightful claim.

"This election is the beginning of a new era of Taiwanese political history," said the Presbyterian Church's secretary-general, the Rev. William J.K. Lo. "It means that the civil war between the communists and nationalists has ended and we can look forward to China and Taiwan creating a new relationship between two nations."

President Chen, whom Lo considers "a close friend of our church," participated in a 40-minute service with the church's 100 head-office staff members three days after the election. "We prayed for him, asking God to give him wisdom," Lo said, noting that Presbyterian leaders plan to come to the president's home occasionally to pray for him and his family.

Lo insists that the Presbyterian Church does not "cling" to the DPP, but points out that the party developed partly through the church's vision, which was born long before the party was formed in the 1980s. One of the church's political assets is its 1,208 congregations spread throughout the island, representing most every class and ethnic group, including at least 11 aboriginal tribes, according to Lo.

In the 1970s Presbyterians issued three public proclamations that helped establish it as a "pioneer" in a growing "human rights and democratization struggle," Lo said. "The church leaders are ahead, even of politicians, in thinking about a theoretical understanding of democracy and human rights," he asserted. "We have become the creative minority, especially so since we are empowered by the Holy Spirit -- it is not only our wisdom but wisdom given by God" that guides us.

Arrigo agrees that Presbyterians generally have been a step ahead of Taiwan's politicians. "They've been not just in the forefront, but have moved ahead of them," she said.

Lo, who has served as secretary-general since June 1998, says that the secret to the church's disproportionate impact is a conviction of the God-given dignity of people and a "theology of homeland." "This homeland Taiwan is given to us by God," Lo explained. "It's a stewardship; we should do our best to take care of this island and the people on this island."

In 1977 the church issued a "Declaration on Human Rights" calling for Taiwan's independence. In 1991 its "Public Statement on Sovereignty of Taiwan" urged the development of a mutually beneficial relationship between China and Taiwan, but insisted that neither had sovereignty over the other.

Many Taiwanese, however, view the "Kaohsiung Incident" of 1979 as the genesis of the independence movement. What started out as the first major human rights celebration on the island, turned violent as police closed in on the crowd in the capital Taipei and employed teargas. Demonstrators insist that the violence was instigated by pro-KMT collaborators. The government tried three groups responsible for the demonstration, including a group of 10 people associated with the Presbyterian Church. The church's secretary-general at the time, Dr. Kao Chun-ming, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Out of that event arose the DPP and an overseas support network of democratic activists. Nearly every leader of the present democratic movement was involved as a defendant or defense lawyer, including Chen, who helped defend the Presbyterians. Arrigo, who was married at the time to the protest's main organizer Shih Ming-teh, also participated in the event.

In the early 1990s the Presbyterian Church had an important role in pushing the KMT to open the records on a taboo subject -- the "February 28 incident" of 1947, when Chiang Kai-shek sent troops from the mainland to suppress public protests against corruption and repression by the government. Human rights groups say that the troops killed between 18,000 and 28,000 people and imprisoned many more in the "White Terror'' campaign that occurred in the following decade.

The church's activism provoked the KMT to monitor its activities. The government sent spies to church meetings and occasionally confiscated documents. "It's like Jerry Falwell supporting Reagan, or liberals in the '60s supporting Angela Davis, so the government saw them as a political organization," said Wright Doyle, a former seminary teacher in Taiwan. "The Presbyterians saw this as persecution, but many evangelicals not connected with them believed that they were persecuted for their political activity, not for their faith."

Protestants in Taiwan are split politically, with many supporting the KMT. "No one wants Taiwan to be absorbed by China -- 'unification' is what you say to get them off your back," Doyle explained. "But de jure independence is something that hitherto only the DPP has advocated, and behind them the Presbyterian Church."

Lo acknowledges that most members of his church belong to the KMT, but maintains that this is because it was the only party for the 40 years that martial law existed.

Dr. Paul Kong, a pastor at a congregation that broke off from the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan over political and other differences, believes that the church's relationship with party politics damages its gospel witness. "I think the church should mainly preach the Word of God and should not support a particular party," said Kong, whose Friendship Presbyterian Church congregation in Taipei has about 1,000 members. He believes that Taiwan's spiritual health is "very poor" and is "steadily going down" in a secular society that is more enthusiastic about money and politics than God.

Kong says that some native Taiwanese members of his congregation support the DPP, but there are expatriates from mainland China who solidly back the KMT, particularly the older ones. "They have a great agony in their minds because of this conflict," Kong said. "On one hand they hate communism, on the other hand they identify with "one China" -- they don't want to go back to China, but they don't want to see Taiwan absorbed by China. The national feelings of mainlanders are strong; just like Jews, wherever they go they are still Jews."

In 1996, with the support of the Presbyterian Church, a faction of ideological purists split from the DPP. They opposed compromises toward the KMT on issues such as corruption and independence by then-party chairman and Kaohsiung Incident hero Shih Ming-teh and other leaders.

The recent election has brought "some healing of the rift in the independence movement," Arrigo said. Many had reservations about Chen, feeling that he had compromised too much, but the opportunity for dramatic change outweighed their differences. "There is more than enough trust that he will not sell out to China," Arrigo said. "There is no doubt about the force he represents in terms of reform, uprooting money politics, and independence -- within a pragmatic framework there is trust."

Many Taiwanese -- as evidenced by the narrow vote margin -- believe that the KMT, in spite of all its corruption, did a good job governing Taiwan and question whether the DPP has adequately trained leaders to take on the task. As for corruption, some point out that the two counties that the DPP previously governed also had their share of graft. Further, some note that what the DPP "purists" saw as unacceptable compromise, actually helped push the KMT closer to the independence movement. Outgoing President Lee Teng-hui, for example, who attended a Presbyterian Church in Taipei, riled China last year with his insistence that Beijing and Taipei should relate on a "state to state" basis.

Arrigo, nevertheless, called the DPP's "miraculous victory" a "critical turning point" in Taiwan's history. "It could have gone the other way," she said. "Despite that betrayal (by DPP leaders) which I thought would do in the hopes for sovereignty, we've reached the point that this resolve (for independence) will gradually win out."

The Presbyterians deserve some of the credit for that, she believes. "They have kept the faith on this issue."

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