Nearly 100 people were arrested by Hong Kong police on Sept. 6 as riot officers swooped on democracy protesters opposed to the postponement of local elections. (Photo: AFP)
Yesterday the brutality of the Hong Kong Police Force was once again on display for all to see. On the day when Hong Kongers should have been voting for their legislators, they were protesting for their rights. And I defy any human being — let alone one who claims a Christian faith or conscience — to look with anything other than absolute horror and outrage at footage of a 12-year-old schoolgirl who was simply out shopping being jumped on by police thugs, or of a young man dragged along the street by undercover cops.
Yet while many Catholics, and Christians of other traditions, have played leading roles in Hong Kong’s movement for democracy, it is by now clear that the hierarchy in Hong Kong has kowtowed to the Chinese Communist Party. There is a shocking divide between those who would kneel and bow in prayer to God before fighting for justice, freedom and human dignity, and those who instead kneel and bow to Beijing.
The father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Martin Lee; the proprietor of Hong Kong’s only Chinese-language mass circulation pro-democracy newspaper, Jimmy Lai; Hong Kong’s former chief secretary turned leading advocate for its promised freedoms, Anson Chan (who recently retired from public life); and, of course, the city’s emeritus bishop, the courageous Cardinal Joseph Zen, are role models for Catholic engagement in political struggle.
So too are younger generation Catholics such as Agnes Chow, a leader of the now disbanded political party Demosisto, who was arrested under Hong Kong’s draconian new national security law last month, and members of the Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, who planned a prayer campaign for Hong Kong inspired by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, who issued a call for prayer in early July.
Christians from other traditions, such as Joshua Wong, Benny Tai and Rev. Chu Yu-ming, should also inspire us, in the tradition of great Protestants such as the anti-slave trade parliamentarian William Wilberforce and the anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Yet sadly, with a few exceptions, the current hierarchy in Hong Kong seems to have chosen the other side.
Last week it was announced that the prayer campaign planned for Hong Kong had been withdrawn, under pressure from the diocese. The next day, Hong Kong’s Cardinal John Tong Hon issued a letter to all clergy, titled “Fraternal Admonition,” which warned against “offensive” or “provocative” preaching. He urged clergy to “watch your language.”
In addition, over recent weeks the diocese has issued various directives to Catholic schools, to promote “national identity” and the national security law and to ensure that “any outside activities in which students officially represent the school or participate in full school uniform have all been given prior approval or endorsement by the school” — a clear attempt to prohibit students from engaging in demonstrations or other political activities in their school uniform.
It is not for me to question Cardinal Tong’s motives, but whether he was trying to protect the Church, acting out of fear, under pressure from the authorities or actively in collusion with the regime, it is clear that he is doing the Chinese Communist Party’s dirty work for them in attempting to shut down dissent. And that is not my understanding of the Church’s role.
Church stands for justice and freedom
One of the aspects of the Church that attracted me most to Catholicism when I was baptized in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, by Cardinal Bo on Palm Sunday 2013 was its clear teaching to stand for justice, freedom, fundamental rights and human dignity.
That comes through as a central and repeated value of the Bible, but it is reinforced clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and numerous papal encyclicals throughout time.
It comes through in the examples of many great Catholic campaigners for justice — whether Pope St. John Paul II, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Oscar Romero, East Timor’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, China’s Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei and many other clergy, religious and lay activists.
It comes through clearly in the example of Hong Kong’s other cardinal, the indefatigable Joseph Zen.
Yet the diocese’s actions are now causing questions to be asked. What Bible are they reading? What catechism do they teach? What have they done with Catholic social doctrine?
There are of course exceptions.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing has been a gentle, dignified but courageous voice in recent years — and seems to have been sidelined as a consequence. He should have become the new bishop of Hong Kong when Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung died in January 2019, but his prayerful presence among the anti-extradition protesters may have caused Rome to rule him out for fear of upsetting Beijing.
Earlier this year, at a Mass in memory of those killed in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Bishop Ha prayed "for justice to be done." He also stated that “the value of man is far more important than any other institutional value: the people before the government; the truth before interests.”
Just over a week ago, a French-Canadian priest, Father Gregoire Vignola, preached a spectacular homily in Hong Kong’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in which he challenged the Church. Referring to persecution and suffering, he asked: "Do we realize that this is probably what is awaiting us Christians in Hong Kong in the coming year?” And on the command to "take up your cross and follow him," he said: "Obviously, it is what will be asked from us Christians in Hong Kong in the coming years ... Hong Kong is becoming just like another city in China under the rule of the central power ... And the whole of Christianity in China is more in danger now than it was 20 years ago, being more and more severely controlled.”
At the very start of Mass, Father Vignola said: "I really think that the time has come for the Church in Hong Kong and all Christians to discover and to pay the cost of Christ's discipleship. But it happens that we are weak and cowardly, full of fear of losing something ... We were thinking we would always be the winner ... But now, facing the power of the central government, it seems that we become the loser ... Let us turn to God to ask for pardon for our failures and at the same time asking Him for strength and courage.”
I hope Cardinal Tong and others in the hierarchy study Father Vignola’s message.
The divisions are not only among Catholics. Hong Kong’s Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong has repeatedly supported the national security law, told pro-democracy activists to be quiet and lobbied Anglican bishops in Britain to stop speaking out, drawing justified criticism from civil society.
In contrast, Cardinal Bo issued a statement on behalf of Asian bishops on the day the security law came into effect, warning that religious freedom is very likely to be undermined. “We have learned from heavy experience that wherever freedom as a whole is undermined, freedom of religion or belief — sooner or later — is affected,” he said.
A new briefing by the human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) last week illustrates the potential threats to religious freedom — and already the actions of Hong Kong’s Catholic diocese illustrate the pressures. When a diocese bans a prayer and a cardinal warns clergy to “watch” their words, religious freedom is already in peril.
The divisions among Christians in Hong Kong are clear. There are those who, inspired by their faith, take a stand against repression. There are those who, out of understandable fear, quietly pray. And there are those who, in an apparent rejection of church teachings, collude — not with “foreign forces,” which the security law criminalizes, but with the Chinese Communist Party regime.
I have great respect for those who courageously speak out. I have understanding and solidarity for those who stay quiet and pray. But I struggle to regard those who defend and promote a brutal regime’s agenda, and try to silence the rest of us, as anything other than followers of Judas, not Jesus.
I dislike disunity almost more than anything else. But there’s one thing worse than disunity, and that is a betrayal of conscience. It says in St. Matthew’s Gospel that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” – but nor can one that sells its soul to the devil or betrays or silences its conscience.
Seven years ago, as I became a Catholic, I learned to genuflect. It is a beautiful act of humility. But I will only genuflect at the altar of God, not the altar of a corrupt, cruel, mendacious regime.
Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist, co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch, East Asia team leader at CSW and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). He is the author of “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church”. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.