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Benedict Rogers

It’s time to defend what’s left of Hong Kong’s religious freedoms

The latest report on religious communities authored by Hong Kong activist Frances Hui warns of the dangers of over-sleeping
Published: January 31, 2024 12:05 PM GMT

Updated: February 01, 2024 04:19 AM GMT

A man prays in a Catholic church in Hong Kong on May 12, 2022.

A man prays in a Catholic church in Hong Kong on May 12, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Religious freedom in Hong Kong is increasingly under fire, even if the bullets are insidious and not immediately visible. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime continues to dismantle freedoms, autonomy, and the rule of law, the screws are tightening on Hong Kong’s religious communities.

The announcement yesterday of a "public consultation" over proposed Article 23 security legislation is merely a veneer, as no serious, substantive critique of or dissent from the proposed new law is likely to be tolerated or taken into account.

Article 23 represents a further tightening of the noose and the latest nail in the coffin of the city’s liberties.

Last November, Hong Kong Watch published a report titled Sell Out My Soul: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong. It was the first report of its kind to sound the alarm over the erosion of religious freedom in Hong Kong.

Yesterday, at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, DC, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong (CFHK) Foundation launched a complementary report on the same topic.

Titled Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Committees and written by a courageous young exiled Hong Kong activist, Frances Hui, a Catholic herself, it reinforces and confirms the findings in the previous report and provides new insights.

“Sermons are expected to demand of churchgoers that they adhere to socialist values"

Hui deserves solidarity, support, respect and prayer, as she is one of at least 13 exiled Hong Kong activists who have been targeted with arrest warrants and HK$1 million US$127,900) bounties on their heads.

The key message of Hui’s report is that having destroyed Hong Kong’s other freedoms, religious freedom in Hong Kong is now firmly in the CCP’s sights. While the situation is not yet as severe as it is in mainland China — where churches have been closed, destroyed and even dynamited, and crosses torn down — religious leaders in Hong Kong are, in Hui’s words, “being pressured to promote Chinese Communist Party priorities”.

Self-censorship by religious leaders is widespread, as “sermons are expected to demand of churchgoers that they adhere to socialist values and accept national security enforcement.”

It is now impossible for religious leaders to preach the values of human rights and social justice.

The curricula of religious-based schools are now compromised by national security and “patriotism.” Persons of faith are targeted under the National Security Law and other laws.

Xi Jinping’s campaign of “sinicization” of religion — which in reality means the coercion and co-option of religion into the CCP’s umbrella — is now underway in Hong Kong.

The latest report brings to light the fact that Hong Kong Muslims have been co-opted into participating in multiple events in support of the CCP.

In August 2023, a delegation of 20 leaders of Hong Kong Islamic organizations was invited to visit the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslims are facing genocide.

"What we are seeing now is only just the beginning"

Several Hong Kong Islamic leaders reportedly returned home from their visit parroting CCP propaganda.

Azizul Rahman Suffiad, chairman of the Islamic Union of Hong Kong, for example, said he saw that “the ethnic minority compatriots in Xinjiang are very happy and joyful, fully enjoying religious freedom and are well-respected.”

It should be noted that Suffiad had previously sent a letter to the CCP’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong expressing concern over the reported human rights violations of Muslims in China.

What we are seeing now is only just the beginning. We can expect far worse to come.

Pro-Beijing state-owned media outlets in Hong Kong, such as Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, have already been promoting the ideas of new regulations to control religion, including the establishment of a “Religious Affairs Bureau,” for some time.

When the CCP is planning something, they often trail it in their media outlets, and so these warnings should be taken seriously.

Policy-makers need to understand two things from these two reports.

First, the CCP hates religion, and throughout its history it has always sought either to eradicate it or, when that is not possible, to restrict, repress, co-opt, coerce and control it.

"The Vatican should listen to its most experienced China experts, like Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen"

Second, when freedom itself has been destroyed, as it has been in Hong Kong, religious freedom as one of its components is inevitably undermined. Freedom of religion or belief cannot exist without freedom of expression, assembly and association.

The CFHK Foundation’s report calls on the Vatican to establish an advisory board with China policy experts to better understand the developments on the ground and help craft more strategic and effective policies in response to religious persecution in Hong Kong and China.

The Vatican should reconvene the Commission for the Catholic Church in China, established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 but never utilized by Pope Francis. The Vatican should listen to its most experienced China experts, like Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen and Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, instead of marginalizing and attempting to silence them.

Most importantly, the Vatican — and the Holy Father himself — should speak out for the release of religious prisoners of conscience and threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong.

Pope Francis, in my view, should stand up one Sunday soon from his window overlooking St Peter’s Square and say, after he has prayed the Angelus, these simple words in the form of a prayer: #FreeJimmyLai.

Of course, the report also recommends that the Vatican-China agreement should be reviewed, revised, and — unless and until it adequately protects religious freedom — repealed.

The pope should speak out against the genocide of the Uyghurs, the persecution of other Muslims in China, and the atrocities in Tibet.

Hui’s report does not say this, but I think the pope ought to have an online video call with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

When I wrote Hong Kong Watch’s report last year, I hoped it would serve as a wake-up call. In so doing, though, I felt a rather lone voice, crying in the wilderness.

The report by Hui represents another voice echoing my cry, warning of the dangers of over-sleeping.

Some religious leaders in Hong Kong, tragically, have already been forced to sell out their souls. Others now find they are subject to a hostile takeover.

Either way, it is time to study these two reports seriously — and act to defend what little is left of Hong Kong’s religious freedoms before it is too late.

*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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