An Overview of South Asia

(Editor’s Note: Our Peoples of the World section consist of three parts: an overview of a specific region of the world, a deeper look into the least-reached peoples of this area and a focus on a specific unreached people group. We hope this gives you both a macro and a micro look at specific areas of the world.)

The region defined by the United Nations as South-Central Asia—comprising the states from Bangladesh through to Kazakhstan and Iran—has the largest and fastest-growing population of any region in the world. In 1900 nearly 313 million people lived in this area; by 2025 this number is expected to climb to over two billion, one-third of which will live in urban areas. Over 525 million children (twenty-nine percent of the world total, more than any other region) are growing up here.

South-Central Asia is resource rich and has a multiplicity of cultures and religions: the Muslims of Pakistan, the Hindus of India and the Buddhists of Bhutan and Nepal being the best known. For the purposes of describing the Ethne06 global prayer campaign, we will separate Central Asia (comprising Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan) out and cover it in the October issue of Lausanne World Pulse.

There are a dizzying array of ethnic groups, particularly in India, that are split by language, culture and caste group (which still exists in practice if not formally accepted). The World Christian Database lists nearly forty “World A” (heavily unevangelized) people groups with one million or more members. In addition to these large, least-reached groups there are hundreds of smaller unreached peoples as well.

Despite its massive human-power resource, however, South-Central Asia produces only ten percent of Asia's total Gross National Product (GNP) and three percent of the world's GNP. Certain regions of India have benefited greatly from globalization, and Bangladesh may be next in line, but the rest have been too unconnected or undeveloped to participate much in the information age—yet. Some of the world's largest slums—extremely poor urban regions where adequate safe water, sanitation, shelter and power are not reliably available—can be found here.

Christianity in South-Central Asia
The governments in the region are either non-Christian or based on non-Christian cultures. Most are generally opposed to mission work, especially if it is done by foreigners. India's long-standing democracy has had religious freedom in principle, but extremists have led the charge against both Muslims and Christians and persecution has increased sharply in recent years. Whether this continues over the next twenty-five years depends on prayer and Christian activism.

Religious issues and tensions have a central role in the events and history of the region. According to tradition, Christianity was first brought to India by the Apostle Thomas.

One particularly colorful legend depicts the apostles initially throwing lots to divide the world amongst themselves, and Thomas' lot falling to India. When he refuses to go, Christ appears in a vision to a traveling Indian merchant who is seeking a carpenter. “I have a slave who is a carpenter,” Christ tells the merchant. “I will sell him to you” (In those days the disciples often called themselves “slaves of Christ.”). The next day Christ appears in a vision to Thomas and leads him to the Indian merchant, who tells Thomas he had bought Thomas from “his master.”

Whether or not this story is true, Christianity had a very early start in Asia and likely Thomas and those who followed him had much to do with it. Today, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity all have significant numbers of adherents. Fundamentalists and liberals war with each other: mostly with words but sometimes with violence. Islam and Hinduism together form a solid majority in the region. Christianity is a distant third; as with East Asia, however, India's small percentage translates to large numbers.

There are an estimated 100 million Christians in India. Christians are increasing their share in most of the region (with Sri Lanka and the Maldives being the exceptions). Nepal has a substantial church planting movement as well. There are several mission mobilization efforts in the region. The India Missions Association is a network of dozens of mission agencies; India is and will continue to be a large mission-sending country over the next two decades. Missionaries are also being sent from the other nations (even small Nepal). There are national and regional consultations for nearly all the countries here.

Yet for all this activity, South-Central Asia remains widely unreached. If a Christian network touched over one million people in India, this still would account for less than one percent of the nation. The reality of this enormous population continues to be a significant challenge to evangelism and church growth.

Name P'00   P'25 C'00  C'25   % 75-00  00-25  Issues affecting the future
 Bangladesh  128.9  193.8  0.9  1%  1.8  1%  ++  ++ Restrictions, political instability, economic development
 Bhutan  1.9  3.2  0.0  1%  0.0  1%  ++  ++ Heavy restrictions, civil unrest, strong Buddhist culture
 India  1,021.1  1,395.5  61.3  6%  107.1   8%  ++  ++ Religious conflict, globalization, caste issues, warfare
 Maldives  0.3  0.5  0.0  0%  0.0  0%  ++  +- Restrictions, unrest
 Nepal  24.4  38.6  0.7  3%  2.1  5%  ++  ++ Peace and government rebuilding, persecution of believers
 Pakistan  142.6  229.4  3.6  3%  7.3  3%  ++  ++ Liberalizing, poverty, war on border with Afghanistan, drug trade
 Sri Lanka  19.8  23.4  1.9  9%  2.2  9%  ++  +- Civil war

P’00 – Population, AD 2000
P’25 – Population, AD2025
C’00 – Christianity, AD 2000 (followed by the percentage of the overall population)
C’25 – Christianity, AD2025 projection, World Christian Database (followed by percentage of overall population)
75-00 – Growth rate. The first (+/-) indicates whether Christianity is growing or declining; the second (+/-) indicates whether it is growing faster or slower than the population (thus whether Christianity’s influence is growing or declining). (+-) means Christianity is growing, but not as fast as the population, and so is declining as a share of the country.
00-25 – Growth rate projected for AD2000-2025
Issues – A brief encapsulation of the issues affecting the growth of Christianity in the nation

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].