Tibet: what challenges under Chinese rule face the few believers?


As a precocious youngster I devoured Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian climber who after World War II became tutor to the young Dalai Lama in Tibet.

I still have the newspaper clippings of the thrilling escape of the Dalai Lama into India from Chinese troops in 1959. I then had no idea that over 50 years later I would myself see the golden roofs of the gigantic Potala Palace in Lhasa and cross the vast plateau with its nomads and herds of yaks.

Romanticism

Tibet has had a mystique for centuries and still has. Under the rule of the Dalai Lamas, foreigners were kept at bay and Christian missionaries forbidden. This has led many in the West to romanticise Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, under the old regime, even if we rightly reject Chinese propaganda which glosses over the horrors inflicted during China’s brutal occupation, life for the majority of the population who were serfs was abject poverty. A large percentage of men and boys were sent to the monasteries, and superstitious beliefs hindered the development of science and modern medicine.

Tibetan Buddhism followed after the original Bon animism, in which placation of demons played a large role. In its present Tantric form, demonic forces are still evident and the sexual element is apparent in many of the images for worship, which are frankly obscene. During my visit it was heartbreaking to talk to one young girl who said she had performed 1 million prostrations to earn merit and escape from the wheel of karma. Many temples have been rebuilt, after most were destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Outside the Jokhang temple, Lhasa’s most holy place, pilgrims circumnavigate clockwise and some prostrate themselves for hundreds of miles. Goose-stepping Chinese soldiers march periodically through the crowds in the opposite direction to show who’s boss and, in the old quarter, armed police stand sentinel in pill-boxes every 100 yards. Sadly, probably a majority of Lhasa’s population is now Han Chinese, as there has been mass immigration. Even the use of Tibetan has declined, as Mandarin Chinese is now enforced as the language of education, science, officialdom, and everyday business.

Little gospel impact

Tibet remains one of the few countries where the gospel has yet to make a significant impact. In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries made heroic efforts to enter with their brand of Catholicism; for a short period they made converts in the kingdom of Guge in western Tibet and won over members of its royal family. But, due to the implacable hatred of the lamas, this venture collapsed leaving barely a trace.

Virtually all subsequent ventures were forced to concentrate on reaching the many ethnic Tibetans who live on the edges of central Tibet, in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan and in northern India and Nepal. The Moravians were the first Protestant missionaries to bring the true gospel to the Tibetans in the 1850s, establishing a thriving work in Ladakh, which today numbers several hundred believers.

Missionary hospital

As the 20th century advanced, the Christian and Missionary Alliance established a work among the Tibetans in southern Gansu; the China Inland Mission set up the Borden Memorial hospital in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, which treated many Tibetans. When I visited a few years ago, I was touched to see that Chinese doctors had created a small museum in memory of the missionaries, long after it had been taken over by the communist state, and had lovingly tended the grave of one little girl, the daughter of missionaries, who had died there in the 1930s.

Chinese impact

In 1950 the Chinese communists invaded facto Tibet, destroying 50 years of de independence. The systematic destruction of Tibetan culture and religion led to the abortive uprising of 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s flight. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) even more atrocities followed and hundreds of thousands died. Thousands of temples were demolished and diplomats in Beijing reported that a glut of valuable objects could be found in antique shops. But many precious books and images were destroyed.

Gospel inroads

Paradoxically, in the 1980s, when Beijing somewhat relaxed its control and limited religious freedom was again granted, for the first time the door was opened, if only ajar, for the gospel to reach Lhasa and the Tibetan heartland for the first time. There have been two main ways. Firstly, tourism and business and teaching opportunities have allowed overseas Christians to visit. Many have brought with them Bibles, gospel tapes and CDs in Tibetan. In fact, I was told that many temples have received large quantities of Christian literature. This has borne fruit – at least one high lama, at considerable risk, has been converted. I met another young lama in a remote village on the high plateau who has shown interest in the gospel. Some Christians have been able to teach, open cafés and other businesses, and discreetly share their faith.

Secondly, and more importantly, Han Chinese house-church Christians have arrived in Lhasa and other towns. They may have come on business as part of the growing immigration of Han Chinese into Tibet. But some have a real sacrificial calling to gospel outreach. This means learning Tibetan and Tibetan culture and humbly abandoning the typical Han Chinese feeling of superiority over the Tibetans. Some evangelists have been arrested and even disappeared.

There are now a few house churches in Lhasa and elsewhere, with a few Tibetan converts or enquirers. While I was there I met two Chinese Christian ladies who had come with their non-Christian husbands on business. They were very lonely and lacked fellowship having been unable to find one of the few house churches. There must be many others in similar positions. Tibetan converts are even worse placed; if they live in remote rural areas they may be hundreds of miles from the nearest fellow-believer. They may rely on gospel broadcasts in Tibetan by FEBC and other Christian stations.

Systematic destruction

In 2021 Premier Xi Jinping visited Tibet and there has been a renewed crackdown on Tibetan religion, with even the ubiquitous prayer flags now banned. According to one researcher maybe 500,000 Tibetans have been relocated and forced to work in designated factories. On my visit I saw evidence of the beginning of this systematic destruction of the centuries-old nomadic form of life.

Wrestling in prayer

For the near future, opportunities for gospel outreach in Tibet – whether by Han Chinese house-church believers or foreigners – appear to be severely constrained. Yet we may take heart from the wisdom of a veteran American missionary who taught briefly in Lhasa: ‘Even though I may have few opportunities to openly witness, I can wrestle in prayer against the powers of darkness over this land.’ Satan’s stronghold in Tibet will yet fall, as so many others have. And always this has been preceded by earnest, prevailing prayer in the name of Jesus.

Those wanting in-depth details of the history of gos-pel outreach to Tibet are recommended to read Paul Hattaway’s Tibet: The Roof of the World published in 2020 by SPCK.