ROME – When Pope Francis ticked off countries suffering political and violent unrest during his traditional Christmas blessing Wednesday, one place currenting in the thick of months of heated protests was notably absent: Hong Kong.
In his traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing on Christmas Day, the pope offered prayers for Syria and the Middle East, Venezuela and the Americas, the Democratic Republic of Congo and all of Africa, and Ukraine in Europe, in each case urging efforts to ensure peace, security and an end to suffering.
However, he made no mention of Asia or the sometimes violent protests which, since June, have rippled through Hong Kong, complete with complaints of police brutality, arrests and calls for the city’s former Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, to step down.
Initially sparked by a bill granting mainland China extradition rights over any Hong Kong resident, including tourists and foreign nationals, the unrest has morphed into a movement pushing for greater democracy, with protesters setting out five specific demands, including universal suffrage and an investigation into alleged police brutality.
At times clashes between police and protesters have turned violent. Several people have been arrested, and protesters have called for formal inquiries into police brutality, including the use of tear gas and rubber pellets. Since protests began some seven months ago, police have arrested more than 6,000 people.
In a Christmas message to Catholics in the city, Cardinal John Tong Hon, the current interim leader of the diocese, called the current unrest a “socio-political turmoil” which has torn the social fabric of the city apart.
“As we approach Christmas, we earnestly appeal to all people to stop acts of violence,” he said, and called for a “cooling-off period” that allows for “an in-depth reflection on our social turmoil and find a way to resolve the current impasse in a humane manner, restoring peace with healing of body, mind and spirit.”
As he has in the past, Tong Hon again urged government officials to heed public demands for an independent inquiry into violent clashes between protesters and police, saying the move could “help to re-establish mutual trust between the government and the people and pave the way for a dialogue of reconciliation.”
Getting to the truth, he said, could also help “to rebuild mutual trust between officials and the people, and to open up ways of conversation and repair.”
“I hope that our beloved Hong Kong can always uphold the core values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, and alleviate the disparity between the rich and the poor as soon as possible,” he said.
Other religious leaders have also chimed in. In a separate Christmas message issued last Saturday, Archbishop Paul Kwong of Hong Kong’s Anglican church encouraged both police and protesters to use the festive season as a chance to “start a dialogue with courage, sincerity and humility, and to admit their own inadequacies and shortcomings.”
“The government should not limit themselves to rigid thinking when they respond to voices from society, but should instead take practical measures or actions that are relevant to the needs of the citizens,” he said.
According to the South China Morning Post, around half of the Catholic churches in Hong Kong opted not to celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas Eve due to fear of possible chaos.
Some 38 Catholic churches in Hong Kong held midnight Masses last year, but this year the number was closer to 20, the paper reports. Many churches either chose not to celebrate evening Mass at all, or to move up the time of services so parishioners would not get caught up in whatever drama might unfold.
Protesters had reportedly made online plans to march late on Christmas Eve, but the gathering was cancelled when police told organizers they would have to disperse by 10 p.m., rather than 1 a.m. on Christmas Day, the time for which they had initially applied.
The Civil Human Rights Front, responsible for organizing some of the biggest marches, at times drawing close to a million people, has reportedly applied to hold another march on New Year’s Day.
While Catholic authorities on the ground have been largely supportive of protesters, the Vatican has been silent on the issue – a point driven home by the absence of the protests in the pope’s Christmas message at a time when many residents believe the future of democracy is at stake amid communist China’s so-called “one country, two systems” approach.
Many critics of the Vatican’s silence, including bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, have accused the pope of pandering to mainland China, effectively abandoning Catholics in Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
On a late November trip to Thailand and Japan, Francis dispatched telegrams to the heads of state of countries in whose airspace he entered, including Lam of Hong Kong and President Xi Jinping of China, but carefully avoided any reference to the protests. He also faced backlash for referring to the “territory” of Hong Kong, the “people” of Taiwan, and the “nation” of China.
When it comes to the troubled Special Administrative Region, however, Francis over Christmas 2019 appears to have decided that at least in this case, discretion remains the better part of valor.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.