ROME – In a recent interview, Cardinal John Tong, former bishop and current administer of the Hong Kong diocese, has said he does not believe a new security law, which many fear will limit democracy in the territory, will pose a threat to religious freedom.

Speaking to Kung Kao Po, the Diocese of Hong Kong’s weekly Chinese-language publication, Tong said he understands the need for a security law, which is required as part of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

However, he voiced hope that the government would clarify confusion surrounding the new law, saying, “because citizens have different backgrounds, different ideas, and different concerns, I hope that the government and the (Special Administrative Region) government can eliminate or minimize the public’s doubt.”

Regarding fears that the new law will open the door to assaults on religious freedom, Tong disagreed, saying, “I personally believe that the National Security Law has no effect on religious freedom,” citing provisions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law which guarantee freedom of belief.

“We can also openly preach and hold religious ceremonies. And participate in religious activities,” Tong said.

These comments contradict fears expressed by Jacky Hung, a member of the diocese’s Justice and Peace commission, who upon hearing of the law voiced concern that it “will be used to suppress religious freedom. Hong Kong should adopt universal suffrage before adopting national security laws.”

A semi-autonomous region granted certain freedoms the rest of China is not afforded as part of China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong was required to introduce security measures after the British returned the territory to China in 1997.

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 The bill eventually was withdrawn, but protests, described by many Chinese state media outlets as “terrorism,” continued until the eruption of the coronavirus earlier this year.

Article four of the law is the most controversial. Among other things, it stipulates that when needed, the Chinese Central government in Beijing can step in and set up agencies to help the territory fulfill its security requirements.

Despite lingering restrictions due to the coronavirus, a new wave of protests erupted in May when Beijing rolled out a new national security resolution banning treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism.

Pro-democracy activists take issue with the bill, seeing it as an overreach of China’s government that will ultimately erode Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Since the National People’s Congress of China voted to accept the law several weeks ago, activists have complained about an increasing number of arbitrary arrests for “inciting subversion against the State,” considering these to be part of an effort to eliminate dissent.

In his interview Tong stressed the importance of unity within the Church, insisting that he does not believe its activities will be impacted by the new law.

“The participation of the Church in social affairs should also not be affected,” he said, citing a separate article of Hong Kong’s Basic Law which specifies “that the Hong Kong SAR government does not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations and provides services to the general public.”

Asked whether he feared that the Church in Hong Kong’s relationship with the Vatican would constitute “collusion with foreign forces” under the new security law, Tong also voiced doubt.

“I think the Hong Kong Catholic Church has always had a direct relationship with the Vatican; the relationship between the Hong Kong diocese and the Vatican should be regarded as an internal matter,” he said, insisting that even under the new security legislation, he does not believe this relationship will be considered as collusion.

“In fact, China and the Vatican already have friendly exchanges, and our church focuses on spirituality and pastoralism,” he said.

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