Three days ago, I sat in the European Parliament in Brussels alongside Poland’s former foreign minister Anna Fotyga and a courageous Christian pastor from Hong Kong, Roy Chan, to launch a major new report on threats to freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong. It seemed especially appropriate to be alongside these two individuals, both of whom have bravely expressed their freedom of conscience on the frontlines of protest.
During Poland’s struggle against Communism, Fotyga was an activist with the Solidarity movement, and in Hong Kong’s 2019 protests Pastor Chan was on the streets, aiding pro-democracy demonstrators. Both inspired and informed by their Christian faith, they have – like so many heroes before them, from anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce to anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to St Maximilian Kolbe, St Oscar Romero and St John Paul II, to name just a few – combined their spirituality with practical action.
So what of religious freedom in Hong Kong? Why the need for such a report? And why now?
Freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong is perhaps the last remaining freedom still standing – or rather, teetering on the brink – after all other basic freedoms have been dismantled in what was once one of Asia’s most open cities and is now one of the region’s most repressive police states.
Arguably, narrowly-defined freedom of worship is still intact, for now. People in Hong Kong are still free to go to church, to the mosque, the temple or synagogue, and can still access religious literature and sacred scriptures without difficulty. They are not facing the kind of physical and grave persecution, such as the dismantling of crosses and the dynamiting, destruction or closure of churches, that we see in mainland China.
Instead, what we see in Hong Kong is slow, subtle suffocation of religious freedom through fear, coercion and co-option. It is insidious, hard to spot, but real. It’s the turn-up-the-heat-slowly-to-boil-the-frog-in-a-pan theory, rather than blow-torch arson.
What are the implications in practice?
The report I wrote and published this week, titled “Sell Out My Soul”: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong, outlines four main aspects of this insidious repression.
The first is the impact of the framework of repressive laws in Hong Kong, most especially the draconian National Security Law, which criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements” but fails to adequately define these so-called “crimes”. The effect of this law has meant the dismantling of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and press freedom, and naturally this has had a chilling effect on religious freedom. Further laws in the pipeline, such as the introduction of the anti-subversion law Article 23 and a potential crowdfunding law, will hammer more nails in the coffin of Hong Kong’s freedoms as a whole, and freedom of religion or belief in particular.
Secondly, and ensuing from this, is the specific issue of self-censorship in churches. Most priests and pastors, Catholic and Protestant, will now avoid any reflections, implicit or explicit, on human rights, human freedom, human dignity or justice in their sermons. In August 2020, Cardinal John Tong – apostolic administrator at the time – issued a pastoral letter to clergy, urging them to “watch your language” in homilies. A public campaign of prayer for the city was rejected by the diocese, and since last year commemorative Masses to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre have been stopped. The Hong Kong diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission has been renamed as a commission on “Integral Human Development” and the diocese’s outspoken human rights advocacy of the past has been replaced by talk of “patriotism”, “dialogue” and “reconciliation”. On the surface these do not sound like bad terms, but it is unlikely that “reconciliation” can be achieved without truth and justice, as we learned from South Africa’s painful example. Similarly, “dialogue” should be a means to the realisation of Christian values, not simply an end in itself.
Thirdly, there is the impact in the education sector. At least 60 per cent of government-funded schools in Hong Kong are church-run, but the Chinese Communist Party regime is now dictating the curriculum, brainwashing pupils with ideological narratives and propaganda. This directly threatens the ethos of faith-based schools.
And finally, Xi Jinping’s campaign of “Sinicization” of religion, which is well established in mainland China, is now getting underway in Hong Kong. Several conferences have been held between both Catholic and Protestant leaders in Hong Kong with Beijing officials and their proxies. And of course, what “Sinicization” means is not simply healthy inculturation or genuine patriotism, but loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and the co-option of religious bodies as mouthpieces of Communist Party propaganda.
Already, several Christian leaders in Hong Kong have been arrested. The most visible and obvious was the arrest of Hong Kong’s 91-year-old Bishop Emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, in May 2022. In October that year, Protestant pastor Garry Pang was arrested and jailed for a year for sedition, and in January this year, Pastor Alan Keung Ka-wai was arrested for his part in the production of a book about the 2019 protests. Of course, many will say their arrests are due to their “political” rather than “religious” activities. On one level that is true. But when religious leaders speak truth to power, informed and inspired by their faith, how do you separate the exercise of civil liberties, whether religious or political?
At the end of our two day visit to Brussels to launch the report, Pastor Roy Chan and I joined the “Mass for Europe”, held by the Commission of the Bishop Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). It was a beautiful Mass, in the Church of Our Lady of Victories in Sablon, with dozens of bishops from around Europe.
It was the same day that at least 10 Catholic bishops from around the world, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Bishop Robert Barron and the Archbishop of Southwark John Wilson, released a letter calling for the release of the prominent Hong Kong Catholic entrepreneur Jimmy Lai.
We cannot separate political and religious freedoms. When freedom of expression is taken away, freedom of conscience – and thereby, religion – is inherently undermined.
The title of the report was inspired by the well-known hymn Tell Out My Soul – by the Anglican bishop Timothy Dudley Smith. The irony is that what Beijing is asking Christians in Hong Kong – and ultimately all religious believers – to do is to compromise their values, erode their ethos and sell out their soul, in order to perhaps protect some limited freedom of worship.
That is not sustainable. People of conscience now need to defend Hong Kong’s people of faith.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, and author of The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny (Optimum Publishing International, 2022).