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Beijing is suppressing religious freedom in Hong Kong: report

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is pressing for control of religious beliefs and practices of all faiths, it says
The report titled Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Communities detailing the collapse of religious freedom in Hong Kong was released in Washington D.C. on Jan. 30.

The report titled Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Communities detailing the collapse of religious freedom in Hong Kong was released in Washington D.C. on Jan. 30. (Photo: X)

Published: January 31, 2024 05:22 AM GMT
Updated: January 31, 2024 07:41 AM GMT

The latest report on Hong Kong’s religious communities has revealed how Beijing has increasingly taken control of the island's religions, including the Catholic Church.

Titled Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Communities, the report was presented at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington D.C. on Jan. 30 and was followed by a panel discussion on religious freedom in Hong Kong.

The speakers — Frances Hui who authored the report, Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch, and Piero Tozzi of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China —detailed the steady deterioration of religious freedom with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pressuring religious people and institutions in Hong Kong.

The report underlined the warning signs of what is to come including Beijing’s "sinicization" of religion, the use of religious education for indoctrination, the intimidation of clergy, self-censorship, and direct attacks on all religions and their followers.

Hong Kongers were guaranteed freedom of religion under the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement that guaranteed “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.

However, these promises under the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration are being systematically broken as part of an orchestrated CCP takeover of Hong Kong’s religious sphere, the report said.

"Increasing exchanges with state-controlled mainland organizations are being undertaken to influence religious groups"

Religious freedoms are likely to further deteriorate as numerous recent CCP initiatives point to the party’s determination to take full control — a 2021 mainland Chinese Bluebook stresses the strategic and geopolitical importance of Hong Kong’s religions for China. 

It dedicated a full section to education, including accusations that Christian groups encouraged students to participate in “violent protests” and colluded with foreign organizations.

To counter this, increasing exchanges with state-controlled mainland organizations are being undertaken to influence religious groups in Hong Kong and neutralize the differences in values.

Since 2021, the Catholic diocese has held at least three seminars on the sinicization of religion with the state-controlled Church and has ordered all clerics, seminarians, and religious sisters in Hong Kong to visit Beijing.

All the trips and discussions have omitted the “underground” Church and the persecuted faithful in mainland China.

It is a must to raise and display the People's Republic of China (PRC) national flag that symbolizes atheism in faith-based schools besides other sacred symbols, the report said.

It further pointed out how students’ textbooks on Ethics and Religious Studies (ERS) contain prayers praising and embracing China and Chinese identity, which are equated with the CCP. Teachers are required to introduce national security education and patriotic and socialist values into the curriculum.

An increasing number of pro-Beijing teachers and principals in faith-based schools and their partnerships with mainland sister schools have led to more engagements with external pro-Beijing organizations on campus.

"Priests have received complaints about discussing the government in their homilies"

The Catholic Church in Hong Kong is proactively suppressing information on religious persecution in China and has diluted its focus on advocating the rights of the faithful in China, the report said.

The Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Catholic Diocese was renamed the Diocesan Commission on Integral Human Development as a result of self-censorship; the commission removed concerns over Chinese affairs and advocacy for human rights from its scope of work, it added.

The Hong Kong diocese removed a local priest’s television interview about religious persecution in China and deterioration of religious freedom in Hong Kong from its online sites; the social media administrator resigned after the incident.

Churches warned priests and pastors to avoid sensitive topics in sermons. Priests have received complaints about discussing the government in their homilies.

A Protestant pastor was sentenced to 13 months in prison for sedition and seditious speech under the national security law.

Highlighting how religious leaders and Catholics are increasingly subject to legal prosecution, the report referred to Catholic believer Jimmy Lai’s donation to Cardinal Joseph Zen being cited in Lai’s National Security Law trial.

Falun Gong practitioners too have faced harassment and physical attacks for promoting their faith in Hong Kong, it said.

The CCP — in conjunction with Hong Kong lawmakers, some religious organizations, and state-controlled media — is pressing for the establishment of a mainland-style oversight body on religion to control religious beliefs and practices for believers of all faiths.

"Global powers should make full use of tools at their disposal to reduce the risk of bad actors violating religious freedom"

The Vatican is looking to open a liaison office and an Episcopal Conference in China, which could make the case to legalize the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association and Bishops’ conference.

Hong Kong clerics worry that they will have to join the association, which requires priests to take oaths of fidelity to the government.

The report said there are steps the U.S. government and other democracies can take to support religious freedom in Hong Kong, as well as actions available to global religious leaders in their efforts to protect religious freedom in the territory.

The global powers should make full use of tools at their disposal to reduce the risk of bad actors violating religious freedom in Hong Kong, such as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act.

They must prioritize advocacy for religious freedom and the release of prisoners of conscience in all diplomatic dialogues and engagement with Hong Kong and Chinese counterparts, the report said.

Members of Congress and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) must be encouraged to support religious prisoners of conscience in Hong Kong by including their profiles in the USCIRF’s Frank R. Wolf Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Victims List.

Democratic nations should hold hearings on CCP violations of religious freedom and repression of religious communities in Hong Kong and abroad while also discouraging the Vatican from extending to Hong Kong the secret deal made with Beijing.

They must continue to monitor the status of religious freedom in Hong Kong, the report stressed.

It suggested that the Vatican, Islamic states, and global religious leaders should develop an advisory board with experts on China affairs to better understand the developments on the ground and help craft more strategic and effective policies.

Above all, they must advocate for the release of religious prisoners of conscience and speak up on the threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong; repeal the Vatican-China agreement and revise policy toward China; and speak up against China’s erasure of culture and identity of Uyghur and Hui Muslims and the destruction of mosques in China, the report concluded.

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