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HK’s oldest church displays Chinese flag ignoring criticism

The Anglican Church in Hong Kong had never separated the church and the state, says chaplain and lawmaker Koon

St John’s Cathedral, the oldest church building in Hong Kong, displays the Chinese flag for the first time on National Day, Oct. 1, 2023

St John’s Cathedral, the oldest church building in Hong Kong, displays the Chinese flag for the first time on National Day, Oct. 1, 2023. (Photo: St John’s Cathedral via HKFP)

Published: October 02, 2023 11:38 AM GMT

Updated: October 02, 2023 12:57 PM GMT

The authorities of Hong Kong’s oldest church ignored criticism and displayed the Chinese national flag inside a church during the Chinese National Day service on Oct. 1.

The 174-year Saint John’s Anglican Cathedral displayed the Chinese flag during Sunday morning prayer service next to the pulpit to mark China’s 74th National Day, Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported.

Reverend Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, also a lawmaker in Hong Kong’s assembly, said placing "the national flag at services is not uncommon, many places do the same."

“It’s natural for Hongkongers to hold diverse opinions," Koon told reporters after the services about online and offline opposition to the move.

Koon pointed out that the Anglican Church had never separated the church and the state and had always wanted to “express more” to mark National Day.

Koon, the chaplain of the cathedral, in May suggested placing the national flag during church services. This was after he got elected to Hong Kong’s “patriots-only” legislature in December 2021.

Critics say the legislature has become “a rubber stamp” of Beijing after the Chinese regime suppressed a popular pro-democracy movement by imposing a repressive national security law in 2020 that criminalizes all forms of dissent.

Some 140 people signed a petition against displaying the Chinese flag at St. John’s Cathedral following Koon’s proposal.

In his Mandarin-language sermon on Oct. 1, Koon attributed the protests to “misunderstandings” in the minds of the believers and citizens.

“If we were to display the British flag before 1997, would there be the same volume of debate online? … mainly it’s because we have some misunderstanding of our country,” Koon said.

“There is a period in every country that, if held to the scrutiny of modern standards, would require improvement,” Koon added.

“We praise the lord for what the country has done well in the past… and we pray for god’s grace, mercy, and help for what could have been done better in our country,” Koon further added.

Koon stated that the Chinese national flag would be displayed at National Day services in the future.

The Sunday service was led by Anglican Bishop Matthias Der Tze-wo of Hong Kong who pointed out that the flag was placed to commemorate the National Day.

“We are here to pray for the country, and the flag is here to commemorate [National Day],” Der said during the service.

The display of the Chinese flag during the service drew mixed reactions from the churchgoers who attended the service.

Retired teacher Florence Hoo, 63, said she was thrilled to see the display and that she had waited for this moment for a long time.

“For the first time, I feel my national identity and my religious belief are in unison,” Hoo told South China Morning Post (SCMP).

“There have been too many misunderstandings about the country among Hongkongers, especially the youth. The country has developed quickly in the past few years and lifted millions out of poverty,” Hoo added.

Meanwhile, Theresa Dee, 29, a foreign domestic worker told SCMP that she was okay with the display of the flag.  

“I know it is China’s national day today, but I didn’t know about the flag. I don’t mind the flag. I go to church for myself, not for China,” Dee said.

On the other hand, Veronica Chan, 55, a social worker, expressed discomfort about the display, saying that her participation did not mean she endorsed Koon’s move.

“I only came here because I have been doing that for many years. I will not and cannot let this disturb my routine. I cannot let this affect my commitment to the Lord,” Chan told SCMP. 

For decades, Hong Kong enjoyed a higher degree of freedom than those in mainland China thanks to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

However, such democratic freedoms have disappeared after the national security law criminalized dissent to communism, rights activists say. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Hong Kong bishop and staunch China critic, was arrested last May and later released after a global outrage,

He and five other trustees of the now-defunct humanitarian fund were found guilty of failing to register the entity properly and fined HK$4,000 (US$511).

In 2021, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese stopped the decades-old tradition of holding memorial masses to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989.

Other religious and civic groups have followed suit to avoid troubles from the pro-Beijing Hong Kong administration.

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