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China cracks down on activism in Hong Kong churches
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HONG KONG — On a drizzly Sunday evening in May at Hong Kong’s government headquarters, a small group gathered under a walkway around an altar made of portable lamps and a folding chair.

Dressed in a gray sweater and purple stole, Father Franco Mella celebrated Mass, as he has done every Sunday for seven years, to pray for activists and protesters arrested in the growing crackdown on dissent in the city. “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord…” sang the group, almost drowned out by traffic.

Moments later, a woman approached the group, filmed and recorded the ID numbers of several participants before driving off in a police car. “We are mentally ready to be arrested one day,” said Winnie Wong, one of the organizers.

Mella, a 73-year-old Italian priest who has defended human rights for five decades, is unfazed by the attention. “If you can accept uncertainty, you won’t be afraid.”

Hong Kong’s sweeping crackdown on all forms of social protest is now being felt by its churches, the backbone of the city’s once vibrant activism, and its religious spaces are now under state control, just as they are in the rest of China. .

On Wednesday, Hong Kong National Security Police arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, Hong Kong’s most outspoken Roman Catholic senior cleric and former city bishop for his involvement in a humanitarian aid fund that supported imprisoned activists. The Hong Kong government said the arrests had “absolutely nothing to do” with religion and were simply violations of the law.

After pro-democracy protests began in 2019, Beijing instituted a sweeping national security law in 2020 that crushed dissent on the island territory. Just as educators, journalists and artists have been silenced, churches in Hong Kong, once spaces for discussion of social issues, are increasingly under pressure.

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According to 18 pastors and religious experts interviewed by the Washington Post, churches have been pressured to censor themselves and avoid appointing pastors known to hold political views, and at least one major church is restructuring in case the government freezes its assets.

A study last year by the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement found that more than a third of churches were now more willing to adjust the content of their preaching in light of the political situation in the city.

One pastor said nervous church leaders couldn’t order you to leave if they saw you as a problem, but “they’ll ‘remind’ you, put pressure on you, so you’ll have to leave on your own. same”. Like many of those interviewed, he spoke on condition of anonymity due to the tense political situation.

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Christianity has long played an outsized role in this former British colony, with both opposition activists and leaders at the highest levels of power drawing inspiration from their faith. Hong Kong’s current and future chief executives, Carrie Lam and John Lee, describe themselves as educated Catholics in century-old Catholic schools.

Democracy advocates such as Joshua Wong and media mogul Jimmy Lai have cited their faith as the moral compass of their activism. Wong, raised as a Lutheran, led the pro-democracy umbrella movement in 2014 and said his faith strengthened his resolve to fight for justice.

During the 2019 pro-democracy protests, pastors led their adherents in sit-ins, prayers and chanted “Hallelujah to the Lord,” imploring the government to meet protesters’ demands for accountability and universal suffrage. The song has become a symbol of peaceful protests and freedom of assembly once allowed in the semi-autonomous city that operated under the “one country, two systems” policy, which once gave it far more freedom than the rest of China. .

In the new environment, religious institutions rely on their members to censor themselves to avoid trouble with the authorities.

“A lot of people avoid traps on their own,” the Reverend said. Hung Kwok-him, a pastor who moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan in 2021.

As part of Beijing’s efforts to curb what it saw as increasingly unacceptable behavior in the city, in February 2020 it appointed a new Hong Kong and Macao affairs chief, Xi Baolong, who will is known for his previous crackdown on illegal churches in Zhejiang, China, by removing their crosses.

Five months later, after the new security law was passed, pro-Beijing state media published a list of 20 pastors, accusing some of them to be “rioters”.

Fearing arrest, at least five outspoken pastors then left for Britain and Taiwan. In April, a pastor was charged with sedition, for disrupting court proceedings and defaming the justice system after commenting on ongoing trials on his YouTube channel.

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Churches have always been under tight control on the mainland, which many fear for the future of religious institutions in Hong Kong. In October, China’s state-backed bishops briefed several senior Hong Kong clerics on President Xi Jinping’s views on religion, under the supervision of Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office and the Chinese religious office.

The man who may well be at the heart of integrating Hong Kong’s churches into the Chinese system is the Reverend Peter Koon, an Anglican cleric who is the first member of a religious institution to be elected to the pro-Beijing legislature. from Hong Kong.

The pastors said Koon held strongly to Beijing’s model for a clergyman: patriotism before faith.

Koon has backed the creation of a government religious committee, which some fear resembles China’s authoritarian religious bureau. Koon said the committee would help institutions “complete tasks” such as identifying sites for building religious facilities “more easily.” But pastors have expressed concern that the new committee will be a tool to tighten the state’s grip on churches.

“Setting up a church committee could be a practical way to control churches,” said Hung, one of the pastors who fled the country. “Authorities could revoke their registered church status if they disobey.”

Koon told the Washington Post that there is still room to talk about social issues within churches, such as the poverty gap and housing policies, and that pastors don’t need too much s self-censor. There is no conflict between faith and patriotism because loving the country is a “fundamental requirement” and religious freedom is “guaranteed in the Basic Law”, he said.

“Some may wonder if criticizing the government will be treated as subversion of a country, I don’t think that is the case. It will be terrible if it does,” he said.

First came the political crimes. Now a digital crackdown is descending on Hong Kong.

But with tough restrictions on mainland churches as a benchmark, pastors and churches in Hong Kong are bracing for the worst, and many are careful about what they say and discuss in sermons.

“If you want to stay in this space, you must be ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves,'” said Nelson Leung, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, citing scripture. “We have to tap into our wisdom.”

John Chan, assistant professor at Alliance Bible Seminary, noted that pastors have stopped addressing politics in their sermons, whether online or in person. He said churches are devising alternative plans to operate, altering “the whole ecosystem”, so “the eggs don’t all drop at once”.

In late 2021, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, one of Hong Kong’s three largest Christian organizations, passed a motion at its annual general meeting to split its churches from an umbrella corporation into separate entities, according to a document seen. by The Post. The move was a way to prevent the whole organization from collapsing if the government decided to freeze the assets, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hong Kong, meanwhile, issued an internal memo last year on qualifying only pastors who won’t cause problems with the government. The memo, which was seen by The Post, stated that because pastors could eventually become bishops, which have a huge influence on “political standing” and “relationship with government” and with church members and workers, examiners should take this into account when making hiring decisions.

Hong Kong clergy are now rethinking the ways they carry out their preaching to strike a balance between speaking out on social justice issues and keeping their churches and families safe.

Pastor Shou King-kong, who has been leading sermons with 10 people at a time since January last year, said “mosquito-sized churches”, independent of registered churches or charities – and the new state restrictions – will be the norm in the future.

“Continuing to speak the truth and call for social justice, to tell people what the Bible teaches and how Christ taught us, will be the greatest challenge we face in this time,” Shou said.

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