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Benedict Rogers

Hong Kong's new bishop faces delicate balancing act

Bishop Stephen Chow may well combine just the right mix of pastoral skills, wisdom and spirituality
Published: December 04, 2021 05:25 AM GMT

Updated: December 04, 2021 05:25 AM GMT

Hong Kong's new bishop faces delicate balancing act

As Hong Kong’s new bishop, Stephen Chow Sau-yan, is consecrated and installed today in a Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception celebrated by apostolic administrator Cardinal John Tong Hon, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, he takes up his position at a critical time for his flock and the city.

Freedoms and autonomy promised to Hong Kong under an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and guaranteed under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, have been rapidly dismantled over recent years.

During the past 18 months, whatever remaining civil liberties and human rights have been torn up and trampled on under the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian national security law, imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong.

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Thousands of Hong Kongers are leaving the city, while hundreds are in jail, including prominent lay Catholics such as pro-democracy entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, whose popular Apple Daily newspaper was forced to close in June. The father of the democracy movement, 83-year-old barrister Martin Lee Chu-ming, a devout Catholic, is serving a suspended prison sentence. Christians from other traditions, including Protestants Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Joshua Wong Chi-fung, are also among the peaceful activists behind bars for speaking out for human rights.

Press freedom is in tatters, academic freedom is undermined and the school curriculum has been adapted into a propaganda system for brainwashing Hong Kong’s future generations in the ways of Xi Jinping Thought and the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology.

There are signs that religious freedom is already threatened, with warnings to clergy to be careful in their preaching. Police have raided at least one Protestant church, the Good Neighbour North District Church, which aided protesters in 2019, and HSBC has frozen its bank accounts and those of its pastor, Roy Chan, now in exile.

On top of that, he has the headache of a Vatican that seems all too quick to kowtow to Beijing and all too reluctant to speak out for those the regime persecutes

Other Christians in Hong Kong warn of worse to come. Day by day, Hong Kong is changing from being one of Asia’s freest and most open cities into just another Chinese city under the total control of Beijing’s brutal regime.

This scenario is a challenging one for anyone taking up any public office. But add to the list of challenges the need to care for a divided flock, defend religious freedom and human dignity — two values at the heart of Catholic social teaching — and navigate relations with a regime in a way that both protects the Church and yet does not compromise on truth and justice, and Hong Kong’s new bishop has his work cut out for him.

On top of that, he has the headache of a Vatican that seems all too quick to kowtow to Beijing and all too reluctant to speak out for those the regime persecutes, whether Christians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners or Hong Kongers.

Three years ago, the Vatican signed an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party regime which gives Beijing a say in the appointment of Catholic bishops in mainland China. It resulted in the arrest or forced retirement of underground bishops who have for decades courageously stayed loyal to Rome.

That deal — the details of which remain secret — was renewed with no public review or transparency last year. Presumably signed by the Vatican in the hope that it would improve religious freedom, it has had the opposite consequence. Religious persecution in China has only worsened.

Choosing a new bishop to lead the Church in Hong Kong was no easy task for Pope Francis in this context, following the death of Bishop Chow’s predecessor, Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, almost three years ago. To leave a see unfilled for so long is unusual, and a sign of the difficulty in discerning the right candidate.

It needed to be someone who could give reassurance to Hong Kong’s Catholics, moral leadership to the city, a prophetic voice for justice and peace, without antagonizing Beijing. It could not be someone regarded by pro-democracy Catholics as a sell-out to the regime, but nor was it realistic to expect it to be an unbridled activist. Someone combining truth and wisdom, conviction and diplomacy, courage and healing.

Bishop Chow’s remarks in defense of religious freedom and plurality, and his expressed prayers for the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, offer reassurance of his conscience

As I wrote in the now defunct Apple Daily when his appointment was announced, “it seems that Rome may have found just the right man in Bishop-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan.” It is early days, but based on his media performance, background and comments from those who know him, he may well combine just the right mix of pastoral skills, wisdom and spirituality. A respected educator, Bishop Chow is not known “either as being pro-Beijing nor as being at the forefront of the democracy movement. And that may be a good thing.”

Bishop Chow’s remarks in defense of religious freedom and plurality, soon after his appointment was announced in May, and his expressed prayers for the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, offer reassurance of his conscience. His background in education may equip him to defend academic freedom, and as a Jesuit he may have the ear of Pope Francis. His emphasis on seeking unity not uniformity — “unity in plurality” as he put it — bodes well. As a shepherd, his task is to defend his sheep without unnecessarily provoking the wolves.

How capable he is to live up to the challenges confronting him remains to be seen. But Bishop Chow deserves our prayers and support. It is heartening that the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME), a society of secular priests and laypeople, plans a “Great Prayer” campaign today in its seminary in Italy as Bishop Chow is consecrated. It is inspiring that concelebrating the Mass for the new Jesuit bishop will be a Fransiscan bishop, a Salesian cardinal and a diocesan cardinal, invoking the diverse charisms of the Catholic Church.

As I watch the livestream in the cathedral where — out of solidarity with the people of Hong Kong — I have joined Holy Mass most Sundays online from London throughout the pandemic, I too will be praying, for a light in the darkness for Hong Kong and for strength for the city’s new shepherd.

* 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). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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