ROME – After new national security legislation was passed unanimously in Hong Kong this week, the local diocese assured that amid concerns that the sweeping new measures will not interfere with the secrecy of confession.

In a brief statement, the Diocese of Hong Kong addressed what it said was “social concern” over the Church’s Sacrament of Confession in light of the new security law, referred to as Article 23.

“With regard to the legislation of Article 23 on safeguarding national security, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes that citizens have an obligation to ensure national security,” the statement said, in support of the law.

The statement said the Church had already expressed its views on Article 23, and that the new law and that despite increased powers granted to police, it “will not alter the confidential nature of Confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation) of the Church.”

Article 23 was passed by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parliament Tuesday, targeting a range of offenses dubbed treasonous.

Among other things, the law allows closed-door trials, it grants police the right to detain suspects for up to 16 hours without charging them, and it includes harsh penalties such as life sentences for crimes such as insurrection.

The legislation expands on the National Security Law imposed by Beijing in 2020, which drew widespread opposition and mass protests, and criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Set to come into force this Saturday, the bill’s rapid approval is seen as a sign of the influence that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee enjoys.

Opponents of the law have voiced alarm at the move, saying it marks yet another affront to democracy, and signals the end of Hong Kong’s independence.

A group of 81 lawmakers and public figures from around the world, including in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Korea, issued a joint statement Tuesday voicing their concern.

“The legislation undermines due process and fair trial rights and violates Hong Kong’s obligations under international human rights law, jeopardizing Hong Kong’s role as an open international city,” they said, calling the law yet another “devastating blow” for freedom.

Since the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020, several pro-democracy activists, including prominent figures such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai and Cardinal Joseph Zen, have been arrested or faced legal threats due to their support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Lai, founder of popular newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested in August 2020, and his ongoing trial is seen as a landmark case for Hong Kong’s national security legislation.

Among other things, Lai, 76, has been accused of endangering China’s national security, and has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, a crime which could potentially carry a life sentence, and a lesser charge of conspiracy to publish seditious material.

In May 2022, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested along with five others for allegedly failing to properly register a now-defunct fund established to assist people arrested in mass protests that unfolded in Hong Kong in 2019.

Zen, 92, was found guilty a the culmination of his trial in November 2022, and sentenced to pay a fine of HK$ 4,000 (US$ 500).

Pro-democracy activists believe the passing of Article 23 this week will lead to further unjust arrests and marks the end of China’s “one nation two systems” policy.

In a March 20 statement, the six religious leaders in Hong Kong said they were “pleased” at the news that The Safeguarding National Security Bill, based on Article 23, was passed after just the third reading of the more than 200-page document.

They noted that the legislation is based on Hong Kong’s Basic Law as well as the 2020 National Security Law, and as such, it “gives full effect to the constitutional obligation” of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), meaning the territory’s government.

“We accept that the legislation can prevent and suppress acts and activities endangering national security and effectively safeguard national security in accordance with the Common Law and the principle of the rule of law,” they said.

The religious leaders defended the law, saying the HKSAR government “clearly defined and delineated the legal provisions to achieve a balance between safeguarding national security and protecting human rights, including religious freedom.”

Among the signatories were Cardinal Stephen Chow, bishop of Hong Kong; Most Ven. Kuan Yun, president of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association; Dr. Tong Yun Kai, president of the Confucian Academy; Mr. Tuet Sui-Hong Ali, chairman of the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association; Rev. Wong Ka Fai, chairperson of the Hong Kong Christian Council; and Mr. Leung Tak Wah, chairman of the Hong Kong Taoist Association.

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