Top: Pope Francis shakes hands with representatives of Protestant churches at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on Nov. 22, 2019.
BANGKOK — Members of the Protestant faith in Thailand said on Friday they agreed with Pope Francis’ call for interfaith cooperation, saying they have no sectarian grudge against their Catholic brethrens.
Protestants, who took up about half of Christian population in the kingdom, have no problem co-existing with the Catholics, according to those interviewed for this story. They spoke moments after attending an audience with the Pope at Chulalongkorn University, where the Catholic spiritual leader urged all sects and religions to find common grounds.
“Catholics and Protestants have absolutely no problems with each other in Thailand at all … This is very hard to find in other countries,” Manoch Jangmook, Chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand, said in an interview. “We are all the same family, the Pope said himself.”
“Pastors and bishops go to each others’ events all the time. We also meet up to eat our meals together,” Manoch added.
Thongchai Pradabchananurat, the founder of New Vision Baptist Church in Bangkok, was visibly excited to shake hands with the Pope, despite their theological differences.
“I feel so honored to receive the Pope. It’s creating unity between many religions, whether Christian, Buddhist, Islam, Hindu, Sikh, and everyone else,” said Thongchai, who represented the Thai Baptists at the meeting. “What a wonderful speech! The way he spoke gave worth to others, from the poor, disabled, and other disenfranchised.”
Presbyterian pastor Prasartpong Pansuay of Second Church Samyan said that Thai Protestants and Catholic clergy even sometimes hold events together, such a joint prayer on Jan. 26 at his church.
“We might be different in terms of rituals and administration, but there’s no conflict or deep-seated differences, politically or otherwise,” Prasartpong said.
Christians in Thailand number around one percent, with Catholics and Protestants having roughly equal numbers of around 350,000 adherents.
Apart from the Catholic Church, The Thai government recognized five other Christian denominations: Baptist, Evangelical, Presbyterian, and Seventh-day Adventist churches.
Only representatives of those five Protestant sects were allowed to meet with the Pope on Friday; Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, both of which have presence in Bangkok, are not recognized by the government, and therefore absent from Friday’s meeting.
Sawang Tono, a Baptist reverend of the Thai Calvary Church, 48, said he agreed with the government’s sanctioning of certain faiths, as it would help prevent “cults” from taking root in the kingdom.
“We check in with each other so that we can prevent not-so-good things from entering the country,” Sawang said.
In a speech given onstage, the Pope stressed the importance of moving beyond religious boundaries to tackle problems the environment.
“Long gone are the days when an insular mode of thought could determine an approach to time and space and appear to offer a valid way of resolving conflicts,” Pope Francis said. “Religions, like universities, have much to offer, without having to renounce their specific character and special gifts.”
Among the audience at the auditorium was 26-year-old Nakoonkanya Charoensilp, who converted to Christianity in her teens.
Nakoonkanya – who said she often found herself to be only Protestant in a room full of Buddhist or irreligious Thais – said she would take to heart the part in Pope Francis’ speech about peace between people of different faiths, especially since her peers are turning increasingly secular.
“Protestants are encouraged to share their faith. And I really love to share mine and listen from others. So I think I have no problem at all about my friends being Buddhists and atheists,” Nakoonkanya said. “They can disagree with me and express their opinion if the disagreement is explained in a nice manner, I am always happy to discuss the differences.”
Though she admitted that some people outright ridiculed her beliefs, Nakoonkanya said that kind of mockery doesn’t come from her close friends.
“Sometimes I just want to share my faith because it is a part of who I am. It is what I’m interested in, not because I want to convert someone,” she said. “[But] people being more open to criticize or make fun of anything religious in general makes it harder to have just a casual conversation about faith.”
Panus Choocheepwattana, 19, said he has been attending Sunday Bible school since he was young. Panus said he was excited to learn about Catholicism straight from the source: the Bishop of Rome himself.
“Today, I had a chance to learn and understand more about Catholics from his speech that expressed the application of the Bible through his vision as a Catholic leader,” Panus said.
Like Nakoonkanya, he often fields questions from his Buddhist or non-religious friends, and he still hopes for more respectful conversation.
Pope Francis departed Thailand on Saturday, heading off to Japan for the next leg of his Asian tour.