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Hong Kong Catholics can learn from South Korea scandal

Catholics in both countries have differed vastly in their response to political turmoil

Hong Kong Catholics can learn from South Korea scandal

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye speaks during an address to the nation, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Nov. 29. Scandal-hit Park said she was willing to stand down early and would let parliament decide on her fate. (Photo by AFP)

Ching, Seoul
South Korea

November 29, 2016

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South Koreans are currently going through a politically tumultuous time. For some time they have been demanding President Park Geun-Hye step down while attempting to start a brand new chapter of their history.

The darkness and distress since Park came to power in 2013 has worsened since the political crisis that broke out in mid-October. In a televised address on Nov. 29, Park said she is now permitting the National Assembly to decide upon her fate in a gesture that could see her soon out of office.

Even so, I see the church in Korea standing with its people, consoling them, speaking out against wrongdoing and reminding people to remain hopeful.

As a foreigner who is disturbed by the worsening situation in my hometown, Hong Kong, the church's role in Korean society has been a source of inspiration and empowerment.

JTBC News, who first exposed the scandal that has been dubbed "Choi Soon-sil Gate," again exposed a report that the National Intelligence Service submitted to Park in mid-2014. It singled-out Catholic groups including the Catholic Priests' Association for Justice as a "religious criticizing force."

Today, two years after that report, it is not only the priests' association who are criticizing the government but church leaders from different dioceses, religious societies and Christian groups are all organizing, issuing statements and shouting "Park Geun-Hye Step Down."

On the other hand, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul and two Protestant pastors who are considered pro-government accepted Park's invitation to a private meeting on Nov. 7. The government said the meeting was for the president to listen to public opinion.

The Ecumenical Youth Council in Korea along with three Protestant youth federations criticized the church officials for attending. "How can you be called clergy?" when "Jesus stayed by the side of the poor, the oppressed and those who suffered from injustice?" they said in a statement.

On Nov. 21, the priests' association gathered at Cheongju Diocese for an emergency meeting regarding the current situation. A statement was released afterwards.

Being aware that the sea of candlelight is filled with hope for "new life" and hearing voices express that "we can't live in such a way anymore", the priests' association emphasized the need to look beyond Park.

"Let's answer the call to cut the oppressive chain that has been tightening around us for 70 years," the statement said.

Looking back at Hong Kong, the place where I come from, I see a similar crisis. Since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, we have observed increasing interventions from the central government in China, deteriorating human rights and a split society.

The "One Country, Two Systems" foundation has been shaken by Beijing's recent interpretation of our mini-constitution, the Basic Law, on Nov. 7. The move ousted two lawmakers who were critical of China's government.

While people are angry and frustrated, the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Diocese continues to play its persistent role.

In the commission's statement, they quoted the late Cardinal John Baptist Wu and his pastoral letter, God is Love which responded to a similar crisis in 1999.

"This right [given to Hong Kong courts to interpret its own laws] is the established basis of Hong Kong's system of law and of government. It is extremely important that the basis of law and government be maintained in all its integrity." he said.

"Dear brothers and sisters, facing this present situation do we feel helpless? That is understandable! Can nothing be done? Remember our faith. Pray more, open ourselves, believe firmly. God helps those who help themselves, because His 'power working in us can do more than we can ask for or imagine'," he added.

I saw the significance of his words not just from the social analysis but his reminder to the faithful of where our strength comes from and the values we must remember.

Six days after Beijing issued the interpretation, the press asked Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong for his opinion. He refused to comment and said the issue should be analyzed by legal experts and that he is more interested in "promoting harmony, communication and love."

I have learned from the Bible and Catholic social teachings that "peace is a fruit of justice" (Isaiah 32:17). However, in the context of China, "harmony" is understood as remaining silent in front of dictatorship.

Does Cardinal Tong's response simply reflect the prelate's personality, his ignorance, or a desire to stay away from his flock? Or is there another consideration?

In recent years, especially after the Umbrella Movement, more and more Catholics have been roused to participate in civil movements for change.

On the other hand, religious and missionary societies are shifting efforts to evangelize in mainland China. Thus, they regard being outspoken on social issues in Hong Kong as an obstacle.

Witnessing the Catholic Church in South Korea, from the laypeople to seminarians and priests, from the missionary societies to the bishops, they are all unified, standing hand-in-hand. But the justice and peace workers in the Hong Kong Diocese look comparatively lonely on their rocky path towards justice.

Ching is a Hong Kong Catholic laywoman who currently lives in South Korea.

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