Asia’s leading cardinal was among the dozens of people to sign an open letter to the Hong Kong government to complain about “police brutality” over the Christmas period in the self-governing Chinese city.

Major protests began in the former British colony in June, after the Hong Kong government attempted to push through legislation which would have allowed residents to be extradited to mainland China.

Marches and demonstrations have continued regularly since then, with some drawing more than a million participants.

Hong Kong has kept its free market economic system, and its citizens have enjoyed civil liberties denied in the rest of China since its 1997 handover from the UK.

Protesters worry that Beijing is seeking to erode their freedoms and are also concerned about the job market and rising housing costs.

These marches have often become violent, and several protesters and police officers have been injured in clashes.

The Dec. 31 open letter – signed by 40, including Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences – called on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to instruct the Hong Kong Police Force to exercise restraint, and to use “only proportionate measures when dealing with any violent conduct.”

The document was released by Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based organization that monitors threats to Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy as promised under the “one country, two system” principle.

The signatories said they were “horrified” to see reports of police firing teargas, pepper-spray and rubber bullets at shoppers, peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and on Dec. 28.

“We are profoundly disturbed by scenes of children and young people being severely beaten, and of rubber bullets being fired into people’s faces, acts which any ballistics expert would confirm presents a serious risk of injury or death, and which therefore is a serious violation of international standards,” the signatories said.

In a response to the letter, the Hong Kong government noted that “protester violence had escalated and reached an alarming level.”

“Masked rioters have vandalized public facilities and shops, committed arson, hurled petrol bombs as well as wantonly attacked police officers and people with different views in various districts, seriously undermining public order. An innocent man was set on fire in broad daylight by protesters while a government contract cleaner was killed by a brick thrown at him. So far, 520 police officers have been injured on duty,” said a statement from the Hong Kong government.

The government statement said the “severity of the situation has often brought our city to a chaotic halt, with many citizens suffering from severe disruption to daily life and fear for their personal safety,” adding that the fear is not just from violence, “but to the immense pressure of being bullied or harassed simply because of their background and opinions.”

The signatories of the open letter said they understood that a “small group” of protesters have been violent and said they did not “in any way condone violence or vandalism.”

“However, we wish to note two important points. First, the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, and yet they have also been attacked aggressively by the Hong Kong Police Force. Second, while nothing justifies violence, it is clear that those protesters who have resorted to violence have acted in desperation and frustration, borne of your government’s refusal to listen to their real fears, understood by many around the world, for more than six months,” the letter reads.

The letter called on Lam to rethink the strategy the Hong Kong government is taking in handling the protests.

“It is essential that the Hong Kong Police Force is instructed to exercise restraint, to respect peaceful protest, and to use only proportionate measures when dealing with any violent conduct. Secondly, we urge you to listen to the protesters’ demands and in particular to make it possible for an independent inquiry into police brutality to be established. Should you continue to reject this idea, we call on the international community to establish an international, independent inquiry mechanism,” the document reads.

“Thirdly, we call for the release of all protesters who have been unjustly detained and who have engaged in peaceful protest. Just because some protesters have turned to violence, it does not invalidate peaceful protests and it does not turn peaceful participants into criminals. Fourthly, we urge you to consider political reform, following the clear message from the recent turnout and results in the district council elections, and to begin a meaningful dialogue with the recently elected district councilors who have a direct mandate from the people. Fifthly, if we or others from the international community can be helpful in encouraging or facilitating a process of mediation and reconciliation, we stand ready to assist,” it continues.

Of the 40 signatories, over a dozen are Catholic, including Dr. John Dayal, former President of the All India Catholic Union; Lord David Alton from the United Kingdom; and politicians Mantas Adomenas from Lithuania, Jan Figel and Miriam Lexmann from Slovakia; and the former Director of the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, Dr. Thomas Farr.

Although Catholics make up only about 5 percent of the population of Hong Kong, members of the Church have been prominent in the campaign to protect the territories’ freedoms, which includes the freedom of religion. The Church runs several schools in the territory, many of which have been flashpoints in the protests.

Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony Macau, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1999, are the only Chinese dioceses where the Vatican has a free hand in the appointment of bishops.

The former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has been a prominent face at the protests. Zen has also been an outspoken opponent of the Sept. 22, 2018 China-Vatican secret agreement on the appointment of bishops on the mainland, which the cardinal says is a “sell out” of the Chinese Catholic Church.

Catholics have also held prominent roles in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong administration. Lam is Catholic, as was her predecessor as Chief Executive, Donald Tsang.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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