ROME – Prison sentences handed down this week for three young pro-democracy activists, in tandem with the arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, has been largely read as the latest chapter in China tightening its grip on Hong Kong and eviscerating the principle of “one nation, two systems” under which the territory was transferred to Chinese control in 1997.
That reading is hardly wrong, as the crackdowns clearly suggest fears of the demise of democracy voiced earlier this year when China imposed a new national security law may not have been exaggerated.
However, there’s another layer of significance to recent events in Hong Kong that’s largely escaped notice. Unraveling it, and the thought exercise it poses, begins with acknowledging this fact: Three of the four dissidents either jailed or arrested this week are committed Christians, and two of the three are actually Catholic.
One of those Catholics is Lai while the other is Agnes Chow, who received a 10-month prison sentence Wednesday for her role in organizing 2019 pro-democracy protests regarded by Chinese-backed city officials as unauthorized. Chow, by the way, marked her 24th birthday Thursday in her jail cell.
Lai’s also a practicing Catholic who, just last month, received an award from the pro-free market Catholic group the Acton Institute and spoke in terms that now seem prophetic about how belief in God’s grace has prepared him “for whatever suffering I have to take up.”
Joshua Wong, meanwhile, the young protest leader who received the longest sentence at 13 months, is an Evangelical Christian who’s been outspoken about how his faith motivates his political activism.
Indeed, Christian energy permeates the protest movement in Hong Kong, even if just 12 percent of the territory’s population is Christian. As pro-democracy crowds surged last year, the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became their rallying cry. Granted, that was to some extent a tactical move, since under Hong Kong ordinances religious gatherings often are permitted when political protests aren’t, but it also reflected the genuine convictions of many of the activists.
Hence the thought exercise: Should what’s happening right now in Hong Kong count as a form of anti-Christian persecution?
At first blush, styling things that way might seem a stretch. After all, there’s little evidence that the three young protest leaders or Lai are being targeted because of their Christian faith; indeed, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, is herself a Roman Catholic who attended the city’s St. Francis’ Canossian College.
Wong, Chow and Ivan Lam are in jail because they defied China’s authority, not because of their religious beliefs, and if Lai is eventually sentenced to a prison term, the same undoubtedly will be true in his case.
In all honesty, there are plenty of Christians in Hong Kong, including a few senior leadership figures, who enjoy good relations with the city’s authorities because they’ve chosen not to endorse the protests and to stay out of the fray. One thus could make a strong argument that what’s playing out here is about politics, not religion, and to drag religion into it is arguably gratuitous.
Except, of course, nobody’s actually “dragging” religion into anything. It’s a fact, not a confessional supposition, that many of the protagonists in Hong Kong’s drama are driven by sincere religious conviction.
Here’s how Chow put things in a 2019 interview.
“I’m a Catholic, and I do think that my participation in social movements is affected by my religion,” she said. “Religious belief and what we learn from our religion and the Bible gives us our belief and courage to fight for freedom and rights for Hong Kong people.”
As a result, ignoring the religious component of the Hong Kong storyline is what’s actually artificial, not injecting it.
To put the point differently, perhaps the focus in thinking about what counts as religious persecution shouldn’t be so much on the motives of the one inflicting the persecution as the one suffering it.
In Catholic terms, a classic example is offered by St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador. When Romero was shot through the heart in 1980 while saying Mass, the assassin pulling the trigger probably wasn’t driven by religious hatred; indeed, the demographics of El Salvador being what they are, there’s a good chance the gunmen himself was a practicing Catholic.
Yet over time, the Church came to understand that what mattered was not so much the motives of the killers but rather why Romero put himself in a position to be shot. He knowingly and repeatedly exposed himself to danger on the basis of his deep Christian faith, which is why he was eventually canonized in 2017.
That same year, Pope Francis issued an amendment to the sainthood process in the Catholic Church, creating a new category for candidates who sacrifice their lives for others. It doesn’t require that the risk to life be fueled by religious hatred, only that the sacrifice be shaped by religious faith.
In that sense, maybe the answer to our thought exercise can be sought this way: Forget what’s driving the jailers. What are Chow, Wong and the rest doing in jail in the first place, and what does one suppose is sustaining them while there?
If the answer to those questions is, at least in part, about Christianity, then perhaps this ought to count as “anti-Christian persecution” after all.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.