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Christians back HK democracy protests with food and faith

Religion, politics increasingly blur in fight for full universal suffrage
Christians back HK democracy protests with food and faith

Pro-democracy students attend a lecture near Tamar Park in Hong Kong on Friday. Nearly 1,000 secondary school pupils joined university students Friday to bolster a days-long protest against Beijing's refusal to grant the city unfettered democracy (AFP Photo/Xaume Olleros)

Published: September 26, 2014 11:12 AM GMT
Updated: September 26, 2014 12:19 AM GMT

When Francis Lam, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students, joined thousands of protesters outside government buildings in Tamar Park this week, the main reason was to protest Beijing’s proposed curbs on universal suffrage. Another was to help distribute bread, he said.

The HKFCS and Protestant pro-democracy supporters have distributed 1,000 loaves a day from Monday to Wednesday to hungry students.

“Tamar Park is far from eateries and some students found it a burden to walk a long way for meals and simply did not eat,” said Lam. “The bread was donated by Christian patrons.”

‪Although secular, Hong Kong’s largest-ever student rallies have been fueled by significant Christian participation. Amid fears over creeping interference from religion-resistant Beijing, the large-scale involvement of Christians is a clear sign of Church support for the pro-democracy movement.

Lectures at the rally site have included leading religious figures delivering speeches that have mixed sermon-like language with rallying cries for democracy.

When Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a mainstay of the movement, spoke to crowds on Wednesday, he urged students to look inside themselves and block out China’s Communist Party, which last month maintained that it would nominate candidates for future elections starting in 2017.

“In a place where education is not sufficient, people will get cheated easily. There will be danger of manipulation. However, the basic conditions in Hong Kong are ready. People are mature enough,” he said. “Beijing does not allow civil nomination because they fear. They do not trust in us, thinking that we will intentionally choose a leader who will confront them.”

As Hong Kong fights for its political future, God and politics have become increasingly blurred. This week a student asked Zen at the rally site: “Some people would say politics is dirty and they should not get involved. How should a Christian respond?”

Zen answered: “For the Catholic Church, everyone has the right and duty to get involved, though it may be in different degrees of participation.”

Priests at some churches in Hong Kong have preached support for the protesters during sermons in recent weeks, while other conservative church leaders have strictly kept to the Gospel.

Similarly, many leaders of the pro-democracy movement are Christian.

The three initiators of the Occupy Central movement -- which has promised more protests next week -- are Protestants including Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Joshua Wong, a student protest leader who mobilized 1,200 students to join the rally on Friday, is also Protestant.

Former chief secretary and high-profile protester Anson Chan, founder of the pro-democrat Apple Daily Jimmy Lai, and founder of the Democrat Party Martin Lee are all Catholics. Along with Zen, they have regularly been branded the “four troublesome gangsters of Hong Kong” in pro-Beijing newspapers in the territory.

Although Protestants and Catholics make up just seven percent and five percent of the population, Christians have greater cause to oppose Beijing, said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a politics professor at City University of Hong Kong.

“The proportion of Christians supporting the movement is higher than the proportion of the Hong Kong population in general,” he said. “Those who have Christian beliefs have a stronger distrust of the Communist Party of China because they are certainly an atheist party, of course. And I would say that Christians, by definition, certainly they accord a higher priority to spiritual things than material things.”

In trying to reassure people in Hong Kong, the Communist Party has issued regular warnings that political instability will harm the territory’s laissez-faire economy, at the same time promising economic incentives if it behaves -- many Beijing critics in the city say they now expect more.

“Whenever Hong Kong found itself in need of assistance and help, it invariably received unreserved support from the central government,” the state-run English language China Daily printed in an editorial on Tuesday, reminding readers of a broad economic package in 2012.

While many Christians in the territory are suspicious of Beijing trying to buy support, the main concern is that the Communist Party remains at odds with core Christian values, said City University’s Cheng.

“Christians in Hong Kong, they see that economic development has not brought more religious tolerance in China, so despite economic development, despite improvement in living standards and opening to the external world, tolerance of Christianity especially has not been improving, in fact in the recent two years persecution has strengthened,” he said.

Hong Kong Christians were given a stark reminder of Beijing’s harsh policies on Sunday when authorities detained 100 Christians including children at a house church in Foshan city, just over 100km northwest of Hong Kong.

Although Hong Kong’s many Christian denominations have generally rallied around the pro-democracy movement, arguments have developed.

In early July, Hong Kong and Macau Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong mocked young protesters arrested during a sit-in protest, suggesting they “bring along their Filipino maids” -- tens of thousands of whom work in the city -- if they were worried about a lack of food in detention.

Rose Wu, a protestant theologian speaking at public lectures for the protesting students on Wednesday, warned that such comments from a leading religious figure only added to the confusion people were facing.

“The crucifixion of Jesus is political in meaning,” she told crowds of students.

Among other religions in Hong Kong, Hindus and Muslims are almost all South Asians and therefore have no political say. More than 20 percent are Buddhists and 14 percent Taoists who generally fear Beijing less than Christians because they are treated better by the Communist Party.

State media regularly publishes stories about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s fondness for Buddhism and traditional Chinese religions. This week China’s state media printed references Xi had made to Confucianism during recent policy speeches.

“The Chinese Communist regime believes that these traditional religious beliefs may even help to maintain social order and raise moral standards,” said Cheng.

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