NEW DELHI (Reuters) - When Pope John Paul II visited Asia in 1999, he prayed that a ``great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent.''
But planting the cross in Asia will take more than prayer in a region where the missionary movement is viewed with deep suspicion -- by many as a threat to purist ideological regimes, by others as a modern and more pernicious form of colonialism.
Twenty-four staff members from the German-based relief agency Shelter Now International were arrested in Afghanistan (news - web sites) on Aug. 5 on charges of trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.
Those charges are punishable by death under the austere Islamic law implemented by the ruling Taliban, whose foreign minister says material seized showed the aid workers were trying to proselytize Afghan Muslims.
``To convert us, missionaries have worked for 500 years to undermine our reverence for our gods and scriptures,'' said Arun Shourie, once a journalist and now a minister in India's Hindu nationalist-led government.
``Till the early 1950s the denunciations used to be open, shrill, abusive. Today the slander is sophisticated, the untruths are spoken rather than written,'' Shourie wrote in a recent book on missionaries' objectives and claims, ``Harvesting our Souls.''
But China, not India, was the country the pope mentioned most in a paper he released to prepare the Roman Catholic Church in Asia for a millennium of conversion.
CHINA FERTILE GROUND
China has become fertile ground for Christian missionaries as the Communist Party struggles to fill an ideological vacuum.
Drastic economic reforms have undermined the socialist values which once underpinned society and many Chinese are turning to traditional faiths or newfangled quasi-religious groups in search of spiritual sustenance.
Worship is still officially confined to five state-controlled religions and proselytizing is strictly banned.
China has 10 million registered Protestants and 4 million members of the official Chinese Catholic church, which does not recognize the pope. But millions more worship in underground churches and prayer meetings, often with the help of overseas missionaries posing as teachers or tourists.
Last year, Chinese police briefly detained three Taiwan-born U.S. missionaries for attending a secret meeting of a banned evangelical Christian group.
The Fang-cheng church, with about 500,000 followers, was one of at least 14 Chinese Christian sects the authorities have labeled ``evil cults,'' according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
That groups them with the banned Falun Gong (news - web sites) spiritual movement, allowing tough penalties for followers and organizers.
In mainly Muslim but multi-racial Malaysia, the constitution guarantees the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion albeit with restrictions as to how that affects Muslims.
But even there, state and federal law may control or restrict propagation of religious doctrine among Muslims which can jar otherwise tolerant interfaith relations.
LONG HISTORY OF MISSIONARIES IN INDONESIA
Missionaries followed Dutch and Portuguese spice traders into the eastern part of what is now Indonesia in the 16th century, long after Arab traders took Islam to parts of the archipelago, and they are still most active in those poor and remote areas.
In Irian Jaya, also known as West Papua, missionaries provide a valuable supplement to the government's poor infrastructure and services, running an air system that takes supplies to isolated districts and operating schools and clinics.
Some foreign Christian groups have poured Bibles and support into the Moluccas, where thousands of people have died in a religious war between Christians and Muslims.
This has triggered accusations of foreign interference.
Although the world's largest Muslim nation -- about 90 percent of its 210 million people follow Islam -- Indonesia officially recognizes and ostensibly protects other religions.
India's constitution treats all religions equally.
But political liberals and church activists point to a series of grisly attacks on Christian clergy and missionaries in recent years as evidence that the secular nature of the Hindu-majority country is under threat.
Christians trace the surge in antagonism to the ascendancy of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has led coalition governments since early 1998.
``There are no missionaries in India doing religious work, that is to say people involved in conversion,'' said Ipe Joseph, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India.
``Foreign missionaries as in the British days do not exist today ... to the best of my knowledge it is nil, zero.''
He said non-governmental organization workers with Christian names, many of whom work in education or poverty alleviation, are these days glibly branded as missionaries.
Meanwhile, there are more than 1,000 Hindu missionaries working in the northeastern states of India, where violent separatist movements have raged in Christian-majority states.
Father Dominic Emmanuel, director of communication for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, rejected allegations that Christians use allurements -- such as schools and health care -- to drive poor people, particularly tribal people, into their faith's net.
He pointed out that if that was the case the proportion of Christians in the population of one billion would have risen. On the contrary, in the 40 years since the 1951 national census it fell to 2.34 percent from 2.8 percent.
Emmanuel said a ``lunatic fringe'' wanted to prevent those on the lowest rungs of Hinduism's caste ladder, the landless and bonded laborers, from getting education, standing up for their rights and escaping lives of grinding poverty and enslavement.
A member of the Hindu-revivalist Shiv Sena party, an ultra-nationalist ally of the BJP, has introduced a bill in parliament seeking a ban on forcible religious conversions, and the government is planning to tighten the law regulating the flow of donations from abroad to organizations in the country.
Shourie, who like millions of India's elite was educated in a church school, says ``a mighty reaction'' is building in the country against conversion.
``Few developments have alarmed citizens as the systematic targeting by Christian missionaries of people in the northeast, and in our tribal areas,'' he said.
``Conversion is the main activity of church groups, it is their principal business.''