Hong Kong church leaders divided on protests

Hong Kong church leaders divided on protests

In this Feb. 9, 2020, photo, church goers wearing face masks walk out of the St John's Cathedral after attending a mass in Hong Kong. (Credit: Credit: Vincent Yu/AP.)

One of the Catholic Church’s leading experts in Chinese affairs has said church authorities in Hong Kong are divided about pro-democracy protests over a new national security measure that China is attempting to pass in the territory, and there is also a degree of disappointment over the Vatican’s silence on the issue.

ROME – Church authorities in Hong Kong are divided about fresh pro-democracy protests over a new national security measure that China is attempting to pass in the territory, and there is also a degree of disappointment over the Vatican’s silence on the issue.

Speaking to Crux, Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of Asia News and an expert in Chinese affairs, said he believes the silence of Hong Kong church leaders is perhaps in part “because they are very disappointed,” that the Vatican has not engaged the new security measure and the uprisings it has provoked.

Cervellera said he received a message from someone in Hong Kong Sunday, the day several mass protests were staged, stressing to him that “it’s not only necessary to pray to the Madonna of Sheshan for China, but also for the Vatican and for the curia.”

The reference was to a prayer made by Pope Francis at the end of his Sunday Regina Caeli address for Catholics in China on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians and Patroness of China.

In his prayer, Francis made no mention of Hong Kong or the protests, but asked that Mary would guide and protect Catholics in China, “so that they are strong in faith and firm in fraternal unity, joyful witnesses and promoters of charity and fraternal hope, and good citizens.”

Cervellera said there are also different opinions on how to engage the protests, with some church officials supporting the largely youth-driven movement, and others hesitating to rock the boat with political authorities.

“In the Church in Hong Kong there is a certain tension, because not everyone supports the young people who are protesting,” he said. “The majority, yes, they support them, but not everyone.”

Even amongst the clergy, there are some priests, “who back and support them, and priests who don’t want to ruin the relationship with China or the government of Hong Kong,” Cervellera said, adding that, “Christians have always been a bit divided between criticizing the established order and submitting to the established order.”

In his view, Cervellera said he believes this tension is sharper in China due to its Confucian roots.

“In China, the Confucian education imposes that the person completely obeys, completely submits to the political authority, whereas these young people have overcome Confucianism,” he said, insisting that a divided mind on whether to support the protests is felt, “on all sides.”

For almost a year Hong Kong has been the site of massive pro-democracy uprisings and, at times, violent clashes between police and protestors due to a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The bill eventually was withdrawn, but protests, described by many Chinese state media as “terrorism,” continued until the eruption of the coronavirus earlier this year.

With Hong Kong gradually coming out of its strict lockdown, tensions spiked again last week over a national security resolution China is attempting to pass in Hong Kong banning treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism.

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Pro-democracy activists who take issue with the bill, seeing it as an overreach of China’s government that will ultimately erode the autonomy Hong Kong has enjoyed since it was transferred from Britain to China in 1997, have been gathering for demonstrations since last week.

On Sunday, thousands turned out to protests at the Causeway Bay shopping area and the Southorn Playground in the commercial area of Wan Chai, despite restrictions barring large public gatherings.

Some makeshift barricades were set up to block police vehicles. Police then used tear gas on the crowd, arresting around 120 people for demonstrating in unauthorized protests. Numerous student groups and trade unions are also striking and protesting against another proposed bill that criminalizes insulting the Chinese national anthem.

Cervellera said he believes that if the security law passes, it will signal the end of democracy in Hong Kong.

“Why ask China to impose a security law? Security laws are internal laws in Hong Kong, so they should be done by people from Hong Kong, not imposed by the Chinese government,” he said, calling the move “an intrusion” on the part of China and “an abuse of power.”

At one point during protests last summer, Cardinal John Tong Hon, the apostolic administrator of the Hong Kong diocese, had indicated that he supported the demands of pro-democracy protesters, urging Chief Executive Carrie Lam—herself a Catholic – to withdraw it. However, Tong has yet to comment on the latest bill and bout of protests.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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