UCA News
Benedict Rogers

Hong Kong's religious freedom now firmly in Beijing's sights

We are witnessing the early-warning signs of a creeping Chinese Communist Party takeover of religion
Published: February 02, 2022 08:47 AM GMT

Updated: March 02, 2022 09:15 AM GMT

Hong Kong's religious freedom now firmly in Beijing's sights

Bishop Stephen Chow performs the communion rite at his episcopal ordination in Hong Kong’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 4, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

When Hong Kong’s freedoms started to be dismantled, especially after the imposition of the draconian national security law by Beijing in July 2020, I knew it was only a matter of time before religious freedom would come under increasing attack. When freedom itself unravels, religious freedom is inherently impacted.

But until recently the threat could be regarded as perhaps more subtle. While protesters, pro-democracy legislators, human rights campaigners, activists, journalists and lawyers were arrested and jailed, and civil society groups, trade unions and media outlets shut down, places of worship stayed open.

Even though many of those activists were people of faith, they were arrested or jailed instead for their acts of political thought more than religious conscience. Freedom of religion — or at least worship — appeared to be the last remaining liberty.

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Now, however, it seems religion is increasingly in Beijing’s sights. Having driven demonstrators off the streets, locked up the democrats, shut down the independent media, corroded academic freedom, almost eliminated civil society space, neutered trade unionism and castrated the judiciary, religion — and especially the Catholic Church — is the one remaining institution and liberty left standing.

It revives echoes of the words of Martin Niemoller, the Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany who famously wrote the poem that begins: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist.” The poem runs through the list of the Nazis’ targets and ends: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The alarm bells have been ringing for the past two years. When, in August 2020, Hong Kong Catholic Diocese effectively banned a public prayer campaign for the city inspired by an appeal by Cardinal Charles Bo from Myanmar, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, I was alarmed. When, soon after that, Cardinal John Tong Hon issued a pastoral letter to all clergy urging them to “watch your words” in homilies, I was appalled. And when HSBC froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbour North District Church and its pastor, my friend Roy Chan, and the Hong Kong police then raided the church, I saw the storm clouds very much on the horizon.

But what is new is that pro-Beijing media is now openly talking about restrictions on religion in Hong Kong

Now, it looks as though the storm is about to break. Last week pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao published no less than four articles condemning Hong Kong’s Emeritus Bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen, a well-known and heroic champion of democracy, and other churches for their support of the democracy movement.

Beijing’s assaults on 90-year-old Cardinal Zen are nothing new. In 2019, I attended a private gathering of Catholic legislators in Fatima, Portugal, to which the cardinal and Hong Kong’s "father" of the democracy movement, devout Catholic Martin Lee, were also invited.

China’s embassy in Lisbon dispatched a delegation of a dozen or so diplomats to occupy the entire first floor of the hotel opposite ours and make multiple attempts to infiltrate our gathering. That the Chinese Communist Party regime was so spooked by these two Hong Kong pro-democracy octogenarians visiting a religious pilgrimage site with a group of Catholic legislators said a lot about Beijing’s paranoia and its fear of religion.

But what is new is that pro-Beijing media is now openly talking about restrictions on religion in Hong Kong. According to Ta Kung Pao, Lawrence Ma, the executive director of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, has called on the Hong Kong government to abrogate an old colonial law, the Chinese Temple Ordinance, to reapply it to all religions. In other words, to impose new administrative measures on religion.

Ma went further in an unprovoked attack, arguing "Western" religions are incompatible with Chinese culture, claiming — falsely — that they “encourage us to forget our ancestors.” What does he think of Catholic veneration of saints, then, may I ask? Has he not read the fifth commandment — “honor your father and mother”?

Perhaps even more chilling than Ma’s interventions are the remarks by former Anglican provincial secretary-general Peter Koon, recently elected to Beijing’s proxy, puppet rubber-stamp legislature in Hong Kong.

Koon, who has metamorphosized from Anglican cleric into Chinese Communist Party apparatchik, placing his sickle and star alongside his soiled dog collar, backs the imposition of a revised Chinese Temple Ordinance, attacking Christians who supported the 2019 protests as people who had “over-reliance on Western ideologies.” A co-opted religious leader, what Lenin would have called a “useful idiot,” Koon is perhaps — God help us — the embryo of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s retired Anglican Archbishop Peter Kwong was a fully signed-up supporter of Beijing’s national security law, and an enthusiastic member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. His successor, Archbishop Andrew Chan, is a little less enthusiastic, thank God.

If the old Chinese Temple Ordinance needs reform to bring it up to date, and to protect freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere, all the time, of all faiths and none, then I would totally support that.

I have collaborated with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Bahais, atheists, humanists and Christians of differing traditions to promote freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all

For almost all my adult life I have fought for the rights of people of all faiths and none. I have defended Muslims in Myanmar, Ahmadiyyah Muslims and atheists in Indonesia, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims in China and Christians throughout the world. I have collaborated with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Bahais, atheists, humanists and Christians of differing traditions to promote freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all. So, if that was the issue, my track record is clear and I am signed up.

But I fear that’s not what is at play here. I fear that we are witnessing the early-warning signs of a creeping Chinese Communist Party takeover of control of religion. A subtle absorption of Hong Kong’s religious institutions into the Beijing-controlled, United Front Work Department-directed operations: the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for the Protestants, the Catholic Patriotic Association for the Catholics, and a slow strangulation of religious freedom.

Hong Kong’s new bishop offers one fragile flicker of hope. He was not Beijing’s choice, although nor is he identified with the pro-democracy movement in the way that Cardinal Zen and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha are. But in all his public pronouncements since his appointment was confirmed — at his initial press conference, at his ordination and in his first, recent interview — Bishop Stephen Chow has shown that even if he is having to navigate his course carefully, he holds firm to principles of human dignity and freedom of conscience.

The articles in Ta Kung Pao should not be ignored. When Beijing wants to signal its intentions, it has a habit of firing a warning shot via its media outlets first. The world’s religious freedom monitors — the United States’ newly confirmed ambassador-at-large for international freedom Rashad Hussain, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Hussain’s predecessor Sam Brownback, the United Kingdom prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief Fiona Bruce MP and the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed — should pay close attention to the dismantling of religious freedom in Hong Kong, as should the Vatican.

Hong Kong’s freedoms have already been defenestrated. But we must not simply take it for granted and accept it as given. If places of worship are reined in, freedom of thought, conscience and religion are curtailed, homilies are censored, clergy are jailed or disappeared or simply silenced, and if Hong Kong’s religious institutions are slowly absorbed into the CCP’s institutions, and if truth — or the pursuit of truth — is then shrouded in lies, we must shout it from the rooftops.

* 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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