When Usman Qureshi began following social media coverage on Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip from Hong Kong, he felt horrified and helpless.
Qureshi, a 22-year-old Hong Kong Muslim who is ethnically Pakistani, has always been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Yet in discussions about the crisis last month – when Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas fought for 11 days in a struggle that killed over 250 people – he realized many around him were unaware of the history behind the long-standing conflict.
To help raise awareness and show their support, Qureshi and several friends decided to organize a mass prayer in solidarity with Palestine at the Kowloon Mosque on June 5, with the city’s Chief Imam Mufti Arshad.
“There were solidarity protests all over the world, but in Hong Kong we couldn’t really see anyone trying to lead something,” Qureshi said. “When I talk to some of my local (Han Chinese) friends about the conflict, they’d say: ‘there’s always some war in the Middle East.’ This lack of education is something that really bothered me. So me, my friends, and my fiancé worked together to organize something.”
Although the organizers initially wanted to hold a peaceful protest, they were denied permission by authorities, who cited both security and pandemic-related concerns, Qureshi said.
An annual vigil that was due to take place on June 4 to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre was recently banned, sparking public outcry. Since Beijing imposed a national security law criminalizing diverse forms of dissent in the city last summer following the 2019 social movement, protests of any nature have become subject to growing scrutiny.
For Saturday’s prayer, organizers have taken measures to ensure that the event will be “peaceful,” including a statement on the event flyer that reads: “No signs, banners allowed. There will be no demonstration. Anyone attempting one will be told to leave the premises.”
In recent months, ethnic minorities in Hong Kong have also been unfairly blamed for the coronavirus, with government officials and media outlets perpetuating racist narratives about dark-skinned minorities being more likely to spread COVID-19.
The Saturday prayer is just one of many pro-Palestine solidarity events held worldwide – including in the United Kingdom, France, and Australia – in recent weeks since the latest escalation of the conflict erupted.
Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and researcher, says Palestinians are drawing connections with struggles in other parts of the world, including the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and Black Lives Matter in the United States. Activists in Palestine also hope to give inspiration to those fighting oppression worldwide, she added.
“For Palestinian resistance and confrontation of their systemic erasure by Israel, the defiance is also a result of the defiance of other struggles globally,” she told The Diplomat. “We learn from one another, while oppressors share tools of domination and control, as well as weapons and narrative. Our strength is in our global coming together without taking each other’s voices.”
The last pro-Palestine rally in Hong Kong took place in 2014, when about 300 marched to protest Israel’s military campaign in Gaza against Hamas following rocket fire on Israeli cities. The escalation began in July and lasted for 50 days, before ending in a truce. Later that year, Hong Kongers took part in the “Umbrella Revolution” protests advocating for universal suffrage.
Looking ahead, Qureshi and others are hopeful the prayer will help educate more Hong Kongers about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and serve as a gesture of support to those who are still suffering. Seeing the way young Palestinians have been fighting against oppression has also inspired him to speak out, he added.
“Young people are not afraid to voice out against oppression,” Qureshi said. “We believe prayer is a tool. We want to show peaceful solidarity with the people of Palestine.”