UCA News
Benedict Rogers

The insidious undermining of religious freedom in Hong Kong

Corrupting religion from within ensures its believers only practice the faith in name, they're forced to worship Xi and CCP instead
Published: November 13, 2023 04:23 AM GMT

Updated: November 13, 2023 04:36 AM GMT

A flag-raising ceremony to celebrate National Security Education Day at the Hong Kong Police College on April 15, 2021.

A flag-raising ceremony to celebrate National Security Education Day at the Hong Kong Police College on April 15, 2021. (Photo: GovHK via HKFP)

On Wednesday this week, Beijing archbishop and president of the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), Bishop Joseph Li Shan, will begin a rare five-day visit to Hong Kong at the invitation of the city’s new cardinal, Stephen Chow.

The visit comes just a week after archbishops and bishops from around the world issued a petition calling for the release of 75-year-old Catholic pro-democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai, who has already spent almost three years in jail and faces his long-delayed trial under the National Security Law which could lead to him spending the rest of his life behind bars.

The Hong Kong government responded furiously, labeling the letter “misleading and slanderous” and accusing the signatories, who include some of the Church’s most senior clergy, of “blatantly undermining” the rule of law and meddling in Hong Kong affairs.

At the same time, Bishop Li’s colleague, Shanghai’s new Bishop Joseph Shen Bin — appointed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in April without the approval of the Vatican and in breach of the Sino-Vatican agreement — last week renewed his commitment to implement the CCP's campaign of "Sinicization" of religion.

Against this backdrop, a new report outlining the increasing threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong was launched last week at the European Parliament in Brussels. Titled “Sell Out My Soul”: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong" will be presented at three events — in Washington, DC, this week, in the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa next week, and in the UK Houses of Parliament on Nov. 30.

Published by Hong Kong Watch, the report makes the point that although freedom of worship, narrowly defined, is still intact in Hong Kong, freedom of religion or belief in its fullest form is already under threat.

"When freedom itself is dismantled, sooner or later freedom of religion is undermined"

In Hong Kong today, people can indeed still go to places of worship freely, and still access religious literature. But since the imposition of the draconian National Security Law by Beijing in July 2020, almost all of Hong Kong’s other basic civil liberties — freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the freedom of the press — have been dismantled, inevitably having a knock-on impact on religious freedom.

In a sense, the erosion of religious freedom in Hong Kong is inevitable, for two reasons.

Firstly, when freedom itself is dismantled, sooner or later freedom of religion is undermined. The basic rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are interlinked and interdependent. You cannot have freedom of religion or belief without freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

Secondly, the CCP has always been inherently hostile to religion and has sought at various stages since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to eradicate, suppress, control, or co-opt religion. As Beijing exerts greater direct control of Hong Kong, tearing up its promises of a high degree of autonomy and “one country, two systems,” it is no surprise that religious freedom begins to feel the heat.

The pressure on religions in Hong Kong so far, however, is taking a different form from the persecution that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and others in mainland China face.

Places of worship are not being dynamited, crosses are not being torn down, mosques and temples are not being closed, desecrated, or destroyed in Hong Kong as they are in mainland China.

Instead, the campaign against religion in Hong Kong is slow, subtle and insidious suffocation, with four main elements designed to coerce, co-opt and corrupt from within, rather than crackdown dramatically.

The first tool in this campaign is legislative.

"Christian clergy admit that they now carefully avoid preaching sermons that might anger the CCP"

The National Security Law, and possible new regulations to come, are intended to create a “chill” factor. The Hong Kong government plans to introduce a further security law, invoking Article 23 anti-subversion legislation, and it has floated the idea of a new law to restrict crowdfunding.

Charity laws have already been tightened. All of these impact religions. Pro-Beijing media has carried articles attacking Christianity and threatening the creation of a government department for religious affairs, to scrutinize, regulate and religious activity.

Stemming from this is the second tool of repression, the widespread self-censorship among religious leaders. Christian clergy admit that they now carefully avoid preaching sermons that might anger the CCP, which means not touching on anything related to human rights, justice, or freedom.

In August 2020, Cardinal John Tong, apostolic administrator of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese at the time, instructed all Catholic priests to “watch your language” when preaching and avoid “political” issues. One Protestant pastor who has left Hong Kong claims his church removed all his sermons from the past 30 years from its website, and that many churches no longer share sermons online.

As Cardinal Chow acknowledged in a recent interview, “If you come out with something that violates the national security law, that’s a problem.” In other words, religious freedom is no longer intact.

Since 2022, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong has stopped the annual commemorative Masses that used to be held in parishes to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong’s diocese has re-named its Justice and Peace Commission as the more nebulous-sounding commission on “Integral Human Development,” burying its overt human rights advocacy of the past and focusing on less controversial topics such as poverty and the environment.

At least three prominent pastors have been arrested in Hong Kong. The most well-known case was the arrest of Hong Kong’s 91-year-old Bishop Emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, in May last year. But let us not forget the case of Pastor Garry Pang, who was convicted of sedition and sentenced to a year in jail, and Pastor Alan Keung Ka-wai, arrested in January this year for producing and selling a book that was allegedly seditious.

Another, Pastor Roy Chan, went into exile but his church, which had provided pastoral support, first aid, and sanctuary to pro-democracy protesters in 2019, was raided by the police and HSBC froze his and the church’s bank accounts. Arguably, these cases relate to “political” rather than “religious” activities, but these individuals were acting according to their consciences informed and inspired by their faith. The ability of anyone in Hong Kong today to follow their conscience is now severely restricted.

"These developments show that an insidious undermining of religious freedom in Hong Kong is underway"

Church-run schools in the education sector are the third potential target in the CCP’s stealthy undermining of religious freedom. Religious organizations run at least 60 percent of government-funded schools in Hong Kong, but with the CCP now dictating the curriculum, is ensuring its ideological narratives and propaganda feature prominently.  The ethos of faith-based schools is threatened with its agents potentially seeking to infiltrate seats on school boards.

Back to CCP-affiliated Bishops Li and Shen. The fourth and most potent aspect of the slow, quiet assault on freedom of religion is Xi Jinping’s campaign of “Sinicization” of religion and coercive displays of “patriotism.”

Of course, what “Sinicization” means — as Shen made clear recently — is not simply healthy inculturation or genuine love of country, but loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and the co-option of religious bodies as mouthpieces of Communist Party propaganda.

Now well established in mainland China, it is creeping into Hong Kong.

Several conferences have been held between both Catholic and Protestant leaders in Hong Kong with Beijing officials on these topics. The flag of the People’s Republic of China was displayed in the sanctuary beside the altar in the city’s Anglican Cathedral of St John on China’s National Day for the first time last month, and just over two weeks later the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Center held a flag-raising ceremony, with the Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs Alice Mak in attendance.

Taken together, these developments show that an insidious undermining of religious freedom in Hong Kong is underway. As one religious scholar said, “The most violent form of attack on religious freedom is not necessarily the burning of churches and the killing of believers, for the persecutors kill the bodies but not the souls. Rather, the more dangerous… attack on religion could be its corruption from within, so its believers can only practice the faith in name rather than in essence.”

That is what is happening in Hong Kong. People can still go to places of worship, but if they cannot speak about human dignity, human freedom, and human rights, if the ethos of faith-based schools is diluted, and if they are forced to worship Xi Jinping and the CCP instead of the deity they believe in, then there is no freedom of religion or belief.

The international community must monitor the situation closely, and people of conviction around the world must speak up for the freedom of conscience of Hong Kong’s people of faith.

*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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