The ROC government on Taiwan makes much of the freedom of religion available in Taiwan, which contrasts sharply with the general suppression of worship in Communist China. Certainly, there is greater freedom to practice religious beliefs in Taiwan, but the authorities can, and sometimes do, interfere with religious activity.
In 1985, according to the government’s statistics, only about 30% of Taiwan’s population, or six million people, actively participated in an organized religion. However, other sources estimate that up to 85% of the populace adheres to traditional folk religious. Some Taiwanese practice more than one religion, and some people who live primarily secular lives occasionally engage in religious practices. The traditional day for sweeping the graves of ancestors is a national holiday.
The best known local folk cult worships the sea goddess. Ma Tsu, whose origins lie in Taiwan and Fukien Province on the mainland. There are about 330 Ma Tsu temples in Taiwan.
Buddhism claims over four million adherents, with 3,000 temples and 5,000 monks and nuns. There is some tension among the three well-established Taiwanese schools of Buddhism, which were influenced by Japanese variants of the religion, and the Chinese school brought over from the mainland in the 1940s.
Taoism is widely practiced as well, and as in China, many people worship at both Buddhist and Taoist shrines. Despite suppression during Japanese rule, Taiwan has about 7,000 temples today. The government reports that the number of worshippers is growing slowly but steadily.
Christians account for less than four percent of population. Of the nearly 760,000 believers on the island, about a third are Aborigines, and 470,000 are Protestant. Church-related institutions have helped improve Aborigines’ access to education, health care, and other services.
Some 60 Protestant denominations are active, including several local evangelical groups. These sponsor some 2,400 congregations, 21 seminaries, as well as hospitals, clinics, colleges, and secondary and primary schools.
The largest denomination is the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), with more than 200,000 members, which traces its roots to the work of British and Canadian Missionaries during Ch’ing Dynasty rule. The PCT has a strong base among the Aborignes, and includes President Lee Teng-hui and a number of DPP leaders among its members. It is the only denomination which has achieved significant growth in recent years.
Other major denominations include Lutherns, Baptists, Anglicans, the church of Chris, Mennonites, Methodists, Latter Day Saints, Christian Scientists, and Seventh Day Adventists. Some of these are rooted primarily in the mainlander community. Chiang Kaishek’s family was among the prominent mainlander Christians who fled to the island.
Taiwan’s Roman Catholic community traces its origins to the brief period of Spanish colonization; Spanish missionaries returned to the island at the end of the 19th century. There were about 10,000 Taiwanese Catholics when the KMT took control of the island. A large influx of Catholics came over from the mainland in 1949, and missionary activity won converts in the 1950s and early 1960s, especially among the Aborigines. Church membership has declined from 300,000 in 1964 to about 289,000 today. However, the church maintains a sizable network of medical and educational institutions.
The Catholic hierarchy on the island, dominated by staunchly anti-Communist mainlanders, has long supported the government. In contrast to their counterparts in South Korea, the Philippines, and Latin America, Taiwan’s Bishops have generally avoided involvement in social issues. The Vatican did not appoint a native Taiwanese Bishop until 1987. That same year, when the government’s arrest of a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Tsai You-chuan, for advocating Taiwan independence led to widespread protests by PCT members, the Catholic newspaper in Kaohsiung editorialized, "We must give our total support to the policies proposed by the government." The paper went on to deny that the issues of freedom of speech and the future of Taiwan were among the large moral questions which should concern religious institutions.
Taiwan has five Muslim mosques, including the huge Grand Mosque on Lishui Street in Taipei. The nearly 56,000 Muslim citizens are mainly northern Chinese families who fled to Taiwan after 1949; there are also Muslim expatriates resident on the island. A Jewish Community Center in Taipei serves the expatriate community as well.
But there have been some restraints on organized religion by the government. Overall, churches in Taiwan have played a significant role in defending and promoting human rights and checking government aspirations.
The Protestant Church of Taiwan Confronts the KMT
The most far-reaching church-state struggle in Taiwan is the on-going confrontation between the government and the island’s largest and oldest Protestant denomination, the PCT. For much of the period of KMT rule, the church represented the largest and best organized institution on the island outside of party control. It has a long history of social service activity, and has attempted to make theology meaningful to the concerns of daily life. One practical way of doing this is conducting worship services in local languages.
Beginning in the early 1970s, the PCT became increasingly outspoken in its advocacy of human rights. In the government’s eyes, this made the potential threat posed by the alternative organization real.
In 1971, the PCT issued a public statement calling for a general parliamentary election and warning against communist China’s efforts to claim sovereignty over Taiwan without consulting its people. In 1975, in apparent retaliation for this bold call, the authorities seized PCT bibles printed in Aborigine languages and romanized Hoklo, insisting that the church had to print its materials in Chinese characters. Even today, many older residents of the island cannot read characters. Interestingly, the government has not interfered with other religious groups which conduct services in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew.
By 1977, Taiwan had become ever more isolated diplomatically, and China was openly stating that it would use the expected normalization of relations with the U.S. to press its claims over the island. The PCT issued another statement, calling upon the government "to face reality and take effective measures whereby Taiwan may become a new and independent country." The Government considered this "sedition," and accused the church of consorting with "Taiwan independence terrorists." The PCT insisted that it had only sought to "speak the truth in love" and "appeal for justice and peace."
Nevertheless, the statement led to an all-out assault on the church that continued into the 1980s. The government repeatedly interfered with postal delivery of the PCT newspaper, Taiwan Church News (the oldest paper in Taiwan and Asia’s first Christian paper). In the mid-1980s, the authorities subjected PCT publications to censorship for the first time. Presbyterian KMT members voted their local congregations out of the PCT. The authorities charged churches in the mountains "rent" for using government land, making it hard for them to pay PCT affiliation fees. They also proposed a new "religion law" which would allow it to remove officers and seize the assets of religious bodies which engaged in "non-religious activities," as defined by the authorities. The government also made efforts to gain control over the curriculum of PCT education institutions, and tried to enforce the use of Mandarin Chinese in worship services and education. PCT leaders living overseas were barred from returning to Taiwan, and island-based church leaders could not obtain permission to go abroad. The government also kept representatives of the PCT’s foreign partner churches from visiting.
The Kaohsiung Incident of 1979 led to the imprisonment of a number of prominent PCT figures on a variety of charges. The General Secretary, Rev. Kao Chun-ming, was among those jailed.
The attacks failed to break the spirit of the PCT, however. The church has continued to speak out in favor of democracy and human rights and on social issues like pollution, the cultural and land rights of the Aborigines, and the need for improved social welfare programs. PCT affiliated organizations have attempted to fill in the gaps left by government social policies, particularly in providing services to Aborigines. The church has strongly condemned the government for jailing non-violent advocates of Taiwan independence.