An American missionary has been killed after attempting to contact an isolated tribe on a remote Indian Ocean island. John Allen Chau traveled to the island to try to convert the tribe to Christianity. He was reportedly killed on Nov. 16. Authorities are now figuring out if they can recover his body.
The tribe on North Sentinel island in the Bay of Bengal is a group that is protected by Indian law. They are the only uncontacted tribe in the world to occupy their own island. Many things about the islanders, known as the Sentinelese, are shrouded in mystery. It is believed that they number no more than 100, but no one knows what they call themselves or what language they speak.
The Sentinelese shun attempts by outsiders to contact them. In the past, they have killed fishermen who drifted ashore. They have even shot arrows at helicopters flying overhead. Experts have said that they take this stance in part because interactions with outsiders had resulted in violence and disease in their community. They have little or no immunity to infectious diseases borne by outsiders, making them highly vulnerable.
Chau wrote an account of his interaction with the Sentinelese in notes that were recovered after his death. From Chau’s own writings, he understood his mission was both illegal and high-risk. But Chau also believed he was on a divine mission, answering God’s calling to minister to uncontacted people.
Chau approached the island for the first time on Nov. 15. He paid fishermen $325 to take him close to the island so he could paddle a kayak ashore. That attempt at contact ended in the islanders’ firing arrows at him. He returned the next day, determined to accomplish his mission. It is believed that the islanders killed him and buried his body on the beach.
The group that trained Chau for his mission have defended his actions. Many missionaries are inspired by a Bible passage where Jesus tells his disciples to spread his teachings across the world. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there were roughly 440,000 Christian missionaries working abroad in 2018. Some of them are willing to go to extreme lengths in hopes of spreading their faith.