Reaching Tibetans (3/5)

Reaching Tibetans (3/5)

[This is a five-part series by Charles Rijnhart on reaching Tibetans]

Section 3: Cultural Revolution, Current Day Tibetan Diaspora

Cultural Revolution in China

When the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, marking the end to imperial rule in China, a new nationalistic party called the Republic of China gained control. This party ruled until a Chinese civil war broke out in 1927 between the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China. Upon the victory by the Communist Party, in 1949, Chairman Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao soon began to claim that the area had always been a part of China instead of a sovereign nation and sought to reunite Tibet to the motherland. In 1950, China attacked the city of Chamdo in Eastern Tibet. Chinese troops arrived in the capital of Lhasa in 1951. After a series of failed talks with the Chinese government a revolt broke out in 1959 in the city of Lhasa. The Dalai Lama as a result fled to India. On March 28, 1959, Chairman Mao declared the Tibetan people ‘peacefully liberated’ renouncing the former Tibetan government and implementing the new Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Many Tibetans fled to neighboring India, Nepal, or Bhutan. These refugees are known as the Tibetan diaspora.

Current Day: Tibetan Diaspora

During the years following 1959, many Tibetans fled into exile. In 2010, the Central Tibetan Administration (The Tibetan Exiled Government) estimated that over 128,000 Tibetans were living in exile with the number presumably being more in the present day.[1] The diaspora scattered first among neighboring countries such as Nepal, India, and Bhutan, but now Tibetans also can be found in Switzerland, America, Canada, and many other European countries. Although most Tibetans still live in Tibet there are pockets of diaspora communities that are growing around the world through immigration and exile.[2]

Persecution and torture has been extensively documented among the Tibetan diaspora from those fleeing Chinese occupation. BMC International Health and Human Rights published a study in 2005 citing such torture that included beatings, electrical shocks to the body, forced standing, having blood extracted without consent, and being kept naked for extended periods of time.[3] In addition to torture, many reported traumatic events that would affect their mental health such as witnessing the murder or kidnapping of family and friends, and disappearance of family and friends. In most of these cases many were not formally charged and those that were imprisoned were never given a trial. These incidents have left many Tibetans with long-term post-traumatic stress disorders. Due to the real presence of torture and intimidation by the State over one hundred and forty-five Tibetans have self-immolated (set themselves on fire) in protest.[4] Overall, these tensions between the Chinese state and the Tibetans residing there have resulted in many thousands of Tibetans fleeing China across the Himalayan Mountains into neighboring countries as refugees.

Many scholars affirm God’s sovereignty behind scattering these people for His mission. Craig Ott states “We can confidently affirm God’s sovereign hand in the movement of peoples today, and we can seek to discover how God may use this for his missional purposes.”[5] This mission field today must include the reality of the de-territorialization of the mission field. Globalization, transnationalism, and the urbanization of the world have many unreached people groups coming to other nations for the first time in history. The Tibetan people have either been inaccessible or resistant to the gospel message for centuries and now today they walk the streets of many cities with a Christian presence around the world. The Church should not miss this opportunity to come alongside them and minister to their community. A practical way to do this would be to move among them and live out the life of Christ in ways that local people can understand and appreciate.[6] The missionary should become culturally competent about the people he serves and advocate for relational outreach. For instance, Dr. Wan of Western Seminary states, “The West tends to be more individualistic and program oriented or event based in their evangelism. Frequently it appears as a handing off of some information via tracts, or canned presentations that require no real depth of relationship, and a message, which the recipients often do not understand.”[7] Learning through friendship, sharing through relationships, and relying on God to give the growth will lead to the most effective way for the Tibetan people to come to know Christ Jesus as Lord.


[1] Central Tibetan Administration. 2010 CTA Demographic Survey of Tibetans in Exile, (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

[2] MacPherson, Bentz, and Ghoso, “Global Nomads: The Emergence of the Tibetan Diaspora.” 2008. Migration Policy Institute. (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

[3] Mills, Edward. Prevalence of mental disorders and torture among Tibetan Refugees: A Systematic Review. BMC Int. Health and Human Rights. v.5:7, 2005.

[4] International Campaign for Tibet. Self-immolations by Tibetans. (accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

[5] Ott, Craig, “Diaspora and Relocation as Divine Impetus for Witness in the Early Church” Diaspora Missiology: Theory, Methodolgy, and Practice by Dr. Enoch Wan. (Portland: Institute of Diaspora Studies, 2011), Ch. 6 Kindle Edition.

[6] Tsering, Marku. Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists. (Upper Darby: Interserve. 2006)

[7] Wan, Enoch. Ethnic Receptivity and Intercultural Ministries. Western Seminary. (Accessed Dec. 9, 2017).

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