Several weeks before Russia’s invasion, Ray Peng, the chairman of United Missions of Taiwan, was gathered in Asia with international missionaries who prayed for both Ukraine and Taiwan. Many in the group approached him, as the only Taiwanese in the room, to express their concern for his homeland’s situation.
Yet later when Peng scrolled through his Facebook newsfeed, his friends back on the island were posting cheery photos of hot pot gatherings and vowing to lose weight after stuffing themselves over the Chinese New Year holiday. It felt like his fellow missionaries were talking about a different Taiwan.
“It was really weird,” said Peng. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
He compared the typical nonchalance of the Taiwanese people to his in-laws who live in the earthquake-prone city of Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan. An earthquake once hit while Peng visited them and he was immediately concerned by its strength. But his in-laws brushed it off as they were accustomed to the tremors. Likewise, Taiwanese who have lived under the threat of invasion by mainland China their whole lives go on with daily life without thinking too much about it.
But the cracks began to show on February 24.
The Russian invasion has resonated with many Taiwanese emotionally as they have watched news clips from Ukraine of what could one day become their own reality. Online, some declare it’s “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow,” while pundits debate whether the US military would really come to Taipei’s aid in the case of an invasion by Beijing. TV news stations have recommended what to include in emergency packs (such as Japanese canned bread).
Yet on Sunday mornings, many churches don’t broach the topic outside of naming Ukraine as a prayer item.
Congregants in the pews span a variety of political views on China-Taiwan relations—from those who want Taiwan’s independence on the one hand to those who wish to unify with China on the other. Still, Christian leaders seek to view the ongoing geopolitical conflicts through a biblical lens and find hope in their faith in a time of uncertainty.
An island divided
While Taiwan is 5,000 miles from Russia’s war in Ukraine, the invasion has struck a chord in the island of 23.6 million residents, which faces its own existential threat.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and has long threatened to use force to bring Taiwan into its fold. Cross-straits relations have ebbed and flowed over the past 70 years, yet the threat has recently intensified due to a confluence of factors: the deterioration of relations between China and the United States; Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and strengthening of China’s military; and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s increasingly close ties to the West. A top US admiral made headlines last year when he said China could launch an invasion of Taiwan in the next six years.
“If anybody relates to the situation of being a small democratic country living in the shadow of a larger nondemocratic one, I think the Taiwanese have a very unique perspective on that,” said Ukrainian American Alex Khomenko, who has been protesting the war in his current home of Taipei.
Many Taiwanese churches keep politics and faith separate. Pastors avoid discussing perceived political topics from the pulpit to prevent division and arguments. Politics in Taiwan is very divisive: Often legislators from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party and the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) break into fistfights over legislation.
At the root of the division is identity. Supporters of the DDP often belong to families who have lived for generations in Taiwan—including under Japanese colonization—while supporters of the KMT have connections to those who fled with the Nationalist army from China to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Their backgrounds factor into how they view Taiwan, China, and their relations.
To maintain peace, many churches try to stay neutral. David Doong understands this challenge firsthand: As the general secretary of the Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism (CCCOWE), a coalition of Chinese churches outside mainland China, he needs to remain diplomatic on numerous topics—including Taiwan’s status.
He instead stresses what the churches have in common.
“Since we are joined together by the gospel, we need to return to God’s Word. The gospel has criticism for all of our ideologies,” he said.
Doong does not take a political stance when preaching but instead tries to teach what the Bible says about a given topic. He believes a pastor’s job is to equip his or her congregants to view all issues from a Christian worldview. Yet at some point, the situation may become so urgent that pastors have the responsibility to speak out.
“But when is it that time? It’s really an art and many times you can’t see it clearly until after the fact,” Doong said. Pastors are in danger of either becoming self-righteous or staying silent, he added. “It really needs wisdom."
Hong Kongers in exile
The silence on politics in Taiwan’s churches surprised Timothy Lee when he first moved from his homeland of Hong Kong to Taiwan to attend seminary six years ago. He had assumed that because Taiwan was a democracy, churches would be more open to discussing current issues than in Hong Kong. Instead he found there was even less space to discuss anything considered “political” in the church.
This has made it difficult for some Hong Kong transplants to join Taiwanese churches. Thousands of people left Hong Kong after Beijing passed the National Security Law in 2020, quashing dissent in the territory. But when Hong Kong Christians wanted to speak about what they’ve experienced in the last two years, they found Taiwanese Christians were uncomfortable and believed discussing politics was not appropriate at church.
Lee struggled to find a meeting space for the Hong Kongers in his Taiwan Fellowship, which now has 100 attendees. Churches don’t want to be associated with the group because Hong Kong is a divisive political issue. Currently the congregation gathers twice a month at China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei, where Lee works.
The news of the invasion of Ukraine was particularly concerning to Lee and other Hong Kongers in Taiwan. They have already left their homes, many uncertain if they can go back. The war brought back memories of their exodus and renewed fears that their new home could also face destruction.
“I think Hong Kongers in Taiwan have a greater fear of China because we’ve seen in the past two years how it handled Hong Kong,” Lee said. “We never thought they would do this to Hong Kong, but they ignored the international responses and sanctions. So if the international community doesn’t do anything in response to the Ukraine invasion … will [Taiwan] also face this danger?”
The war has also impressed upon Lee the importance of preparing the next generation of Hong Kongers in Taiwan, many of whom are students. It’s a group that has experienced much in the last few years—the disappearance of freedoms in Hong Kong, the emotional toll of the 2019 anti-extradition law protest, the stress of a global pandemic—and has been left feeling hopeless and uncertain about their future. He wants to help them find their identity as Christians and as exiled Hong Kongers, explore what they can do in Taiwan, and set a direction for the future.
Lee believes that as geopolitical changes arrive at Taiwan’s doorstep, its church will be forced to become more vocal about these issues—as some of Hong Kong’s churches did during the 2019 protests. He’s already seen the church take some steps: After the invasion of Ukraine, major seminaries in Taiwan have released statements calling for prayer for the people of Ukraine and Russia, which was uncommon in past crises.
One denomination that bucks the trend of silence is the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), the largest Protestant denomination on the island. Historically the PCT has been politically active in support of Taiwan’s sovereignty. In a 1977 statement, the denomination asked the KMT government to declare Taiwan an independent country. Still, even within the denomination, churches are diverse and vary in their outspokenness.
Ng Tiat-gan, the head of research and development in the General Assembly Office of the PCT, said he hopes China does not invade; however if it does, Taiwanese Christians need to stand up and defend their land. “We need to understand God gave us this piece of land and to seek his special mission.”
The PCT released a statement calling for churches to pray for Ukraine as well as Taiwan’s own security and peace.
“Ask the Lord to help us, through the inspiration of the war in Ukraine, to have the will to persevere in defending our homeland,” it stated.
The denomination is also looking for tangible ways to help Ukrainians beyond prayer, such as working with aid groups and seeking to help a PCT pastor in Finland who is opening his church up to Ukrainian refugees.
Ng wasn’t particularly surprised to see Russian President Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine, but he was amazed by Ukrainians’ response in standing up against Russia.
“Taiwan’s situation is different from Ukraine’s in many ways,” Ng said. “But the invasion of Ukraine caused many Taiwanese people to see that when faced with an enemy’s bullying, you need to stand up. It’s not about who will come to help you—many Taiwanese say the United States will come—but we might find that we need to stand up and be self-reliant, and then people will come help.”
Timothy Liao, who teaches national defense at National Taiwan University, believes that no matter the outcome of the current conflict in Ukraine—whether it ends in a ceasefire; with Ukraine destroyed; or with Russia in decline—geopolitics in the second half of the 21st century will change drastically.
This will have a big impact on missionaries, whose lives have already been upended by COVID-19, and how they spread the gospel. Liao believes missionaries need to understand these global trends in order to find new strategies to reach different countries and people groups.
Liao personally believes the invasion of Ukraine should cause Taiwan to take a careful look at whether it is prepared to face war, what it would do if faced with a precarious situation with China, and how it can seek ways to preserve peace. He wants Taiwan to carefully weigh its current actions in light of what may occur in the future.
For instance, Taiwan recently joined Western-led sanctions on Russia, leading Russia to place the island on a list of unfriendly countries. Liao is concerned that this could lead to Taiwan becoming more isolated, losing access to Russia’s natural gas and getting banned from Russian airspace, which flights from Taiwan usually traverse to reach Europe.
He cautions Taiwanese Christians from quickly demonizing or creating heroes out of people in the conflict. Rather they should try to understand what is happening from different angles so they can have a more balanced perspective and, like Paul says, make “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving … for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).
His church refrains from discussing politics. Yet Liao believes seminaries and Christian think tanks should teach Taiwan’s pastors about the realities of geopolitics so they can better shepherd their congregations.
While the Taiwanese church is filled with differing viewpoints, Doong believes that a crisis could unite the people, much like what is happening now in Ukraine. He and the other Christian leaders interviewed by CT gave several suggestions for how the Western church could support Taiwan’s church should an invasion happen—starting with intercession.
“How do you want the Christians in China to pray for and to show compassion toward [Taiwan believers] if war started to take place?” Peng said.
Liao echoed this call.
“In this chaotic environment, Christians need to hold fast to a faith from on high: No matter what difficulties or dangers of war we face, we all need to have a posture of prayer,” he said. “The most we can do for the churches of other countries is to pray for them, to pray for peace in the world.”
As the world order changes, Christians need to prepare themselves for the difficult times ahead, Doong said, pointing to the exilic paradigm described in the book of Daniel and the letters of Peter.
“A Christian’s hope was never in the rise and fall of worldly kingdoms,” he said. “In the end, this is our hope: that God’s kingdom will come and everything we relied on in this world will be gone.”
Doong noted that this is easy to say during peacetime but much more difficult to live out in times of war. That’s why he believes it’s important to learn from the Ukrainian church in its suffering—not as something to pity but as the “glorious witnesses of the true gospel.”
Angela Lu Fulton is a reporter and editor living in Taipei, Taiwan.