Updated: July 02, 2021 05:30 AM GMT
For the first time in 32 years, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park was in darkness last Friday. Brave Hong Kongers lit candles in other parts of the city in memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but the traditional gathering ground for June 4 was forbidden territory this year, guarded by no fewer than 7,000 police officers instructed to prevent anyone from entering.
The city that until recently was the only place under Chinese sovereignty where June 4 could be commemorated has now gone the way of mainland China, where a state-enforced collective amnesia pervades over this anniversary. Public remembrance of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists by the Chinese regime is now a crime in Hong Kong, punishable by up to five years in jail. The organizers of last year’s Victoria Park rally are all in jail.
One of the few remaining bulwarks — or perhaps oases of truth — against this indoctrination is the Catholic Church. Or, to be more precise, seven Catholic parishes. In those seven churches, Mass was celebrated for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and their families at 8pm — the time the Victoria Park vigil usually began.
The decision by these seven churches to celebrate Mass was of vital importance, spiritually and symbolically. They could easily have gone the way of others in Hong Kong Diocese, erring on the side of fear and caution. But it is at moments of real darkness that the light of truth — and faith — shines most brightly, and quite rightly they recognized their moral responsibility to open their doors to that light.
A protest or a vigil may no longer be legal in Hong Kong but religious worship has not yet been banned. As Porson Chan, a project officer for the diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission, said, “celebrating a Catholic Mass is a religious activity protected by our basic law,” referring to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
Not surprisingly, one of the celebrants of a memorial Mass was Hong Kong’s courageous bishop emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, a long-time outspoken critic of Beijing. In his homily, he said: “We dedicate this memorial Mass to remember the brothers and sisters who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and democracy in Tiananmen Square and the nearby alleys 32 years ago. What they demanded at that time was a clean government. What they longed for was a truly strong China. Their sacrifice was for us, and we embrace their unfulfilled hope: a just and peaceful society, a people respected by the regime, and a truly great China respected by the world.”
We refuse pessimism. We will not lose hope
Speaking not long after the Hong Kong government imposed a “patriotism” test on legislators and civil servants, which in effect means a test of loyalty not to China but to the Chinese Communist Party, Cardinal Zen highlighted a true patriotism, describing those killed in 1989 as “the patriotic martyrs” who deserve respect and love. Like them, he added, “we do love our country, our hopes never die.” Despite dark times for Hong Kong and China today, he concluded: “We refuse pessimism. We will not lose hope.”
Of course, despite that hope and the fact that the seven churches were merely exercising their right to celebrate Mass, Cardinal Zen warned that “we do not know how tomorrow’s newspapers will label our get-together this evening”, adding clearly: “For us, it is a memorial Mass.”
The day before the anniversary, signs appeared in front of the churches warning them not to celebrate the memorial Mass. The signs, which included images of Cardinal Zen, warned against “evil cults” and “causing chaos in the name of paying tribute; splitting religion with hands full of blood” — language straight out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook. The instigators of these warnings cited the draconian national security law, suggesting that public functions commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 massacre would violate this legislation.
Another memorial Mass was celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who reminded the congregation at St. Francis’ Church in Kowloon that when Jesus’ disciples wavered, Jesus told them that “the greatest difficulty in life is the challenge of faith.”
Even Hong Kong’s new bishop-elect, Jesuit provincial Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan, while taking a lower-key approach, said at his press conference three weeks ago that he would pray for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
So what does this mean for the Church? Three things.
First, it means the Church has a vital role to play, as one of the few remaining “free” spaces in Hong Kong. It must be the guardian of truth, justice and freedom, and it must defend these values appropriately, with wisdom, and at every opportunity. It should never forget that so many Catholics — and Christians of other traditions — have been at the forefront of Hong Kong’s human rights struggle, not least the “father” of the democracy movement Martin Lee, media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, student activists Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong and law professor Benny Tai.
It should remember those, like Lai and Chow, in prison for their beliefs. And it should constantly prod the conscience — if one exists at all — of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who calls herself a Catholic and yet has willingly been Beijing’s number one enabler in dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms. The Church must be a prophetic voice in Hong Kong.
Second, however, it means that the Church is now in greater danger. The reality, however, is that would be the case whatever it did. As freedom itself is dismantled in Hong Kong, religious freedom will sooner or later be compromised. The question for the Church is whether it will take it lying down or stand up to defend freedom of religion and conscience. In facing the danger, the Church will need to weigh up the right balance of courage and wisdom. But it should never compromise on its freedom to speak the truth.
And third, the international community now has a greater responsibility to monitor religious freedom in Hong Kong. Pope Francis and the Vatican should re-evaluate their silence on human rights in China and Hong Kong. If it becomes more dangerous for the Church in Hong Kong to speak out, Rome should step in.
Vatican officials would do well to study the testimony and evidence presented in four days of hearings at the recent Uyghur Tribunal in London
For too long, Pope Francis — a pontiff who speaks regularly and powerfully about injustice, persecution and conflict around the world — has been on mute regarding China. He has not spoken out against the crackdown on Christians, he has not met the Dalai Lama, he has not commemorated the Tiananmen Square massacre and he has said almost nothing about the Uyghurs.
Only a passing reference in his book Let Us Dream gave any indication of concern about the Uyghurs, who face what the Canadian, Dutch and British parliaments, the US administration and a growing number of experts believe amounts to a genocide. Vatican officials would do well to study the testimony and evidence presented in four days of hearings at the recent Uyghur Tribunal in London. If the pope heard those first-hand stories, he would find it very difficult to stay silent any longer.
A rare but very welcome call for prayer for the Church in China from Pope Francis ahead of the Global Week of Prayer for China last month was some encouragement, and he would be well advised to build on that. The seven parishes brave enough to hold memorial Masses on June 4 would no doubt be grateful if he said more.
The Church in Hong Kong — and worldwide — is faced with a moment both of great opportunity and great danger. An opportunity to shine a light and speak the truth, yet in the face of twin dangers: persecution or compromise. Let’s hope it rises to the challenge, and let’s pray for protection as it does so.
* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, and his faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015).