ROME – Just 25 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese authority, the territory’s leading Catholic prelate has asked regional leaders to put people first and to give young people, many of whom have become disillusioned by China’s crackdown on democracy, a reason to trust authority.

In a special message published Friday, Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong said that while the past 25 years of Hong Kong’s existence as a Special Administrative Region “have been very challenging, with joys and pains at times,” he is grateful for “the goodness, generosity, and resilience we have witnessed among the people of Hong Kong.”

He prayed that the newly elected administration would “put the best interests of the people first,” promoting “far-reaching and empowering visions, an empathic and positive communal culture, a more profound healing in the parties and a greater sense of unity in a pluralistic Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s Executive Chief John Lee, elected in May, was sworn in Friday, the same day as the 25th anniversary of the territory’s return to China.

In his speech, Lee voiced gratitude to the Chinese Central Government and vowed to build “a more caring and inclusive Hong Kong filled with vibrancy, hope and development opportunities.”

Lee argued that Hong Kong enjoys certain advantages as a special administrative region, and that it is possible to be fully integrated into China’s national development while also thriving as a metropolitan city with vast international connectivity, making it a gateway between China and the rest of the world.

“Together, we will start a new chapter for building a better Hong Kong,” he said, pledging to contribute to “the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”

In his message, Chow also offered prayers for young people, specifically those who are struggling, and asked God to bless them “with empathic understanding and meaningful support from the others” as well as “good reasons for them to trust the authority.”

He prayed that youth would be empowered by support that allows them “to have dreams again,” and that they would have the ability “to avail concrete opportunities to make positive differences for their future and that of Hong Kong.”

The anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China is being marked as a sober occasion for many citizens who are nostalgic for previous years when they had more social freedom and democracy was guaranteed.

When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, certain democratic rights not afforded to the rest of China were guaranteed for a period of at least 50 years under a “one country, two systems” agreement.

However, the imposition of a national security law by Beijing in June 2020 – imposing strict punishments for those accused of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces – has curtailed these freedoms and essentially brought Hong Kong under full Chinese administration, indirectly ending the 1997 agreement that established Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status.

The security law was first drafted by Beijing authorities in the wake of a series of massive pro-democracy uprisings that began in Hong Kong in 2019, with protesters opposing a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

That bill eventually was withdrawn, but large protests continued until the eruption of the coronavirus in 2020. Fresh protests began to bubble up again when rumors of the national security law first came out. However, once the law went into force in June 2020, activists have faced increased scrutiny by police, and hundreds have been arrested, including prominent figures such as Catholic business and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong.

Zen, 90, was arrested along with three other trustees of the defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund on charges that they had violated the national security law and were guilty of “collusion” with foreign forces.

The fund, for which Zen was a board member, was shut down last year after coming under fire from civil authorities in Hong Kong.

Zen, who was released on bail, appeared at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong May 24 along with five others, and was charged with failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which was established to provide financial assistance to those participating in anti-government protests in 2019.

Each of the defendants, including Zen, pleaded not guilty. The next step in what will likely be a lengthy legal battle for Zen and the other defendants will take place Sept. 19, when the trial for the accused will begin.

In his message, Chow also prayed for the elderly who are suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and for those who have lost family members, praying that “they may encounter loving attention and dignified treatments from all of us, their neighbors.”

He closed pledging his faith in God and asking for God to bestow “abundant blessings on China and the Chinese People.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen