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Call for global action to defend freedom of religion in Hong Kong

International experts and organizations have expressed concerns over freedom of religion in Hong Kong after the authorities introduced a new security law stipulating tough penalties

Published: March 15, 2024 11:58 AM GMT

Updated: March 15, 2024 11:58 AM GMT

A group of 16 international experts and organizations have called for immediate global action to defend freedom of religion in Hong Kong, expressing serious concern over its new security law.

In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, the activists said the proposed national security law “directly threatens religious freedom, and particularly, the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Penance - otherwise known as ‘Confession’, in the Catholic Church.”

Hong Kong’s rubber-stamp legislature introduced the new domestic law last Friday. It will be used along with the one Beijing imposed in 2020 after crushing strong pro-democracy protests.

Under the new security law, a person can be punished with up to 14 years in prison for knowing that another person has committed “treason” but not telling the authorities within a reasonable time. The rights activists said the new law could force a priest to reveal what has been said in Confession, against his will and conscience, and in violation of the privacy of the individual confession.

Cardinal Stephen Chow of Hong Kong anoints a catechumen during the Rite of Scrutiny at the Christ King Chapel in Hong Kong on March 3 amid rights groups expressing concern over decreasing religious freedom in the special administrative region.

Cardinal Stephen Chow of Hong Kong anoints a catechumen during the Rite of Scrutiny at the Christ King Chapel in Hong Kong on March 3 amid rights groups expressing concern over decreasing religious freedom in the special administrative region. (Photo: supplied) 

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A long-running liturgical dispute in India’s Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church based in southern Kerala state refuses to die despite a recent change in Church leadership. Last Sunday, most priests from the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese refused to read out the first pastoral letter of the new Church head Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil.

Only 12 of the 328 parishes in the archdiocese, which is the seat of power of the Church, followed the instructions. The priests who read out the letter during Sunday services skipped the part related to the liturgy dispute.

Catholics burn the circular of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, on June 25, 2023, in front of St Mary's Cathedral Basilica in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The liturgy dispute in the archdiocese continues with priests refusing to read out the pastoral letter from their new Major Archbishop on March 10. (Photo: supplied)

The priests said their defiance of the order was a protest against Thattil’s failure to resolve the dispute. Thattil replaced former Church head Cardinal George Alencherry in January.

Alencherry resigned last December following years of controversy and unrest in the archdiocese stemming from his alleged role in selling off church land that reportedly incurred a loss of $10 million US dollars. He was also accused of reviving the liturgy dispute dating back five decades to deflect attention from the land scandal.

The governments of Cambodia and the United States have decided to resume their search for American soldiers killed during the Vietnam War. The search was suspended for one year on the orders of former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen amid deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The decision was made public in a statement published by Cambodia’s official Agence Kampuchea Presse on Tuesday. It followed a meeting between Prime Minister Hun Manet and Ann Mills-Griffiths, chief executive officer for the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

US servicemen drape the American flag over one of six coffins containing the possible remains of US servicemen that are missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Dec. 4, 1995. (Photo: AFP)

The organization has been backing the search program for the past 32 years. More than 40 American servicemen are listed as Missing in Action in Cambodia and the remains of another 42 have been returned.

A further 1,500 are still missing in Vietnam and some have been classified as “non-recoverable.”

Philippine vice-president Sara Duterte has backed a controversial pastor accused of financial and sexual crimes and listed as a fugitive in the wanted list of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. The daughter of former president Rodrigo Duterte issued a statement on Monday to support 73-year-old Apollo Quiboloy, the founder of Kingdom of Jesus Christ sect.

In a video posted on social media, Quiboloy laid out 17 conditions to show up for a Senate investigation into his alleged crimes.

Apollo Quiboloy (fifth from left) who is on the FBI's most wanted list and is facing allegations of sexual abuse and human trafficking, has been spotted recently at a social gathering with former President Rodrigo Duterte, weeks after announcing that he has gone into hiding. (Photo: Impact Leadership Facebook page)

Among his demands are revealing identities of witnesses, the right to personally cross-examine the witnesses, covering all expenses including food, five-star hotel accommodation, dietary requirements, safe landing and departure of his private jet, attendance of his 50 private guards and a guarantee to prove that the US and Philippine governments are not conspiring to kidnap and assassin him.

He was accused of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking including of children, and bulk cash smuggling by FBI before fleeing the US in 2018. 

Myanmar military kept a Baptist Christian pastor and 16 youths in custody days after arresting them during a raid on a shelter camp in violence-hit Kachin state. The arrests followed intense fighting in the northern state on the Chinese border where many ethnic Christians live.

Sources said the soldiers fired shots before they raided the Baptist Church-run Robert camp last Sunday and singled out 17 individuals for arrest. The camp houses some 3,300 people, including children, who fled their homes following violence that began in 2011.

A woman sits next to a cat in front of her damaged house following fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Shan state on Feb. 4. (Photo: AFP)

The ongoing fighting between the military and Kachin rebels reportedly left thousands trapped in conflict-torn areas in the state. Kachin state is home to 116,000 Catholics in a population of 1.7 million.

Prominent Kachin Baptist leader Dr. Hkalam Samson was arrested in December 2022 on terrorism and unlawful association charges. He is serving a six-year jail term.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met with the country’s religious leaders on Tuesday to seek their support in tackling civil issues and fulfilling reform tasks in the healthcare sector.

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Yoon expressed gratitude to religious groups who have supported the government's healthcare reform which aimed at hiking medical school admissions from next year to combat shortages and an aging society. The meeting was attended by 10 religious leaders from the Catholic Church, Baptist Church, Jogye Buddhism, Tendai Buddhism, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, and Cheondoism, among others.

Staff walk outside a hospital in Seoul on March 13. Thousands of trainee medics began a strike on Feb. 20 to protest government plans to sharply increase the number of doctors to combat shortages and serve South Korea's rapidly aging population. (Photo: AFP)

South Korea has been grappling with a crisis after more than 10,000 junior doctors walked out from their jobs weeks ago to protest the increase in medical school admissions.

Protesters say the nation’s current medical colleges are incapable of accommodating more students. The escalating standoff plunged hospitals including those run by the Church into chaos.  

Global rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have slammed Thai authorities for failing to find truth and deliver justice for human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit who disappeared 20 years ago.

Both issued statements to condemn the Thai administration for its inaction ahead of the 20th anniversary of Somchai’s disappearance. The groups said Somchai’s case, and many others highlight "an entrenched culture of impunity." Somchai disappeared from Bangkok on March 12, 2004.

A sketch of Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent Thai Muslim human rights lawyer abducted in Bangkok on March 12, 2004. (Courtesy: Private via Human Rights Watch)

Five police officers were arrested shortly afterward for allegedly coercing him into their car but were acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2015.

Somchai, a Muslim, advocated for rights of Malay Muslims in three southern border provinces troubled by a long-running insurgency. He strongly criticized the imposition of Martial Law in the provinces in 2004, which gave the authorities sweeping powers to detain people for seven days in military custody without charge.

Church-run University of St. Joseph and Municipal Affairs Bureau in Macau Island have joined hands to plant hundreds of trees to tackle depletion of mangrove forests along the coastline.

Between March 16-24, some 800 trees are expected to be planted along the coastline as part of the observance of Green Week.

The Macau authorities have undertaken afforestation schemes to tackle decline of mangroves on the coastline. (Photo: Macau News Agency)

The Macau government has been promoting Green Week to highlight the need for protection of environment for more than four decades. As part of the initiative, the Green Week festival is scheduled to take place from March 16-17 at Taipa Museum in the city.

The university is scheduled to participate in the festival and present research work done by its Institute of Science and Environment in various fields such as conservation of coastal areas and the importance of preserving mangrove forests, besides present stalls on topics such as mangrove conservation, freshwater ecosystems, water management, sustainable use of the oceans, sustainable fishing and plastic pollution.

Thousands of Tibetans and their supporters rallied worldwide last Friday in a joint call for Tibet’s independence from China.

The rallies marked the 65th anniversary of the civilian uprising against China’s occupation of Tibet in 1959.

Tibetans living in exile in India attend a peace march on March 10. (Photo: AFP)

On the anniversary, exiled Tibetan leaders and activists have accused China’s Communist regime of “exterminating the Tibetan identity” through control over the movement of people, and extensive surveillance by compelling Tibetans to spy on each other, and promoting the Chinese language by banning and minimizing the teaching and use of the Tibetan language.

The weekend rallies also marked the 35th anniversary of martial law imposed on March 5, 1989, and the anniversary of the peaceful protests that erupted across Tibet in 2008.

China annexed Tibet in 1950s by force and claimed the mountainous territory has always been an integral part of China.

The regime also brutally crushed Tibetan independence movement and forced its supreme spiritual leader Dalai Lama and his companions to flee to India.

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