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The Slow, Insidious Attack on Freedom of Religion in Hong Kong

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The Slow, Insidious Attack on Freedom of Religion in Hong Kong

As Hong Kong’s basic freedoms have been dismantled, freedom of religion or belief – perhaps the last liberty still just about standing – is under ever-increasing threat. 

The Slow, Insidious Attack on Freedom of Religion in Hong Kong
Credit: Depositphotos

When people think of China’s repression of religion, they understandably think of the genocide of Uyghur Muslims, the atrocities perpetrated against Tibetan Buddhists, the persecution of Falun Gong, and the crackdown on Christians across the country, involving the destruction of thousands of crosses and churches. They do not generally think of Hong Kong.

But over the past few years, as Hong Kong’s basic freedoms have been dismantled, freedom of religion or belief – perhaps the last liberty still just about standing – is under ever-increasing threat. Freedom of worship is still intact – religious believers can still go to church, to the mosque, temple or synagogue, and they can still access their holy scriptures. But freedom of religion or belief in its fullest form is being eroded.

On November 15, Beijing’s Archbishop and president of the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), Bishop Joseph Li Shan, began a rare five-day visit to Hong Kong at the invitation of the city’s new Cardinal Stephen Chow.

His trip comes just a week after 10 archbishops and bishops from around the world issued a petition calling for the release of 75 year-old Catholic pro-democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai, who has already spent almost three years in jail and faces a long delayed trial under the National Security Law which could lead to him spending the rest of his life behind bars. Signing on to the letter were Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Archbishop Timothy Broglio, India’s Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of Trivandrum, prominent writer and speaker Bishop Robert Barron, and archbishops and bishops from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Lithuania, Australia, Canada, and Nigeria.

The Hong Kong government reacted with fury, labeling the letter “misleading and slanderous” and accusing the signatories of “blatantly undermining” the rule of law and meddling in Hong Kong affairs. 

At the same time, Shanghai’s new Bishop Joseph Shen Bin – appointed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in April without approval of the Vatican and in breach of the Sino-Vatican agreement – renewed his commitment to implement the CCP’s campaign  of “Sinicization” of religion. “Sinicization is a directional issue: a signpost and a direction to adapt to the socialist society as well as an inherent rule and a fundamental requirement for the survival and development of the Catholic Church in China itself,” Shen said, emphasizing that Catholic teaching should “align” with the party’s ideology. 

A new report launched this week by Hong Kong Watch details four main ways in which religious freedom in Hong Kong is under pressure. Titled “Sell Out My Soul: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong,” the report analyzes the impact of repressive legislation, particularly the draconian National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in July 2020, and possible new regulations to come. It also outlines the widespread self-censorship in sermons, assesses the impact of Beijing’s direct control of Hong Kong on church-run schools in the education sector, and explores Xi Jinping’s campaign of “Sinicization” of religion in the mainland and its creeping influence in Hong Kong.

The undermining of religious freedom in Hong Kong is subtle, slow, and insidious. It does not involve the dynamiting of churches or the incarceration of Muslims in prison camps, as happens in mainland China. Instead it involves the creation of a “chill” factor, which results in religious leaders themselves making compromises. 

Christian clergy will now avoid certain topics in their sermons, and will certainly not touch on anything that hints at human rights, justice, or freedom. In August 2020, Cardinal John Tong – apostolic administrator of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese at the time – instructed all Catholic priests to “watch your language” when preaching and avoid “political” issues. 

Since 2022, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong has stopped the annual commemorative masses that used to be held in parishes to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. One Protestant pastor who has left Hong Kong claims his church removed all his sermons from the past 30 years from its website, and that many churches no longer share sermons online.

This concern is not surprising, since at least three prominent pastors, including Hong Kong’s 91-year-old Bishop Emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, are facing legal charges. One, Pastor Garry Pang, was convicted of sedition and sentenced to a year in jail. Another, Roy Chan, went into exile but his church, which had provided pastoral support and sanctuary to pro-democracy protestors in 2019, was raided by the police and HSBC froze his and the church’s bank accounts. 

Of course these cases relate to what may be regarded as “political” rather than “religious” activities, but the individuals concerned were acting according to their consciences, informed and inspired by their religious beliefs. The ability of anyone in Hong Kong today to follow their conscience is now severely curtailed.

Another threat to freedom of religion is unfolding in the education sector. Perhaps as many as 60 percent of government-funded schools in Hong Kong are church-run, whether Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or other denominations. Like all schools in the city, faith-based schools are required to introduce National Security Law education and the promotion of Beijing’s propaganda in the curriculum. 

According to one Protestant pastor, faith-based schools are now “diluting their religious education.” School boards are believed to be infiltrated by Chinese Communist Party sympathizers, eroding their faith-based ethos. Many of these church-run schools are associated with parishes, and that spells a potential threat to the churches themselves – parishes could be held responsible if the school does not comply with the National Security Law, and could then be shut down as a result.

Xi’s campaign of “Sinicization” of religion has been underway in mainland China since 2015. But it is not simply about “inculturation,” encouraging religious groups to respect and incorporate the local culture. What it actually means is, as Hudson Institute’s Director of the Center for Religious Freedom Nina Shea argued, “a strategy to absorb China’s religious communities into the [Chinese Communist] Party’s United Front, to help the CCP indoctrinate, surveil and ensure ideological conformity.” 

Sinicization has, since 2018, restricted churches in mainland China and coerced them to become propaganda mouthpieces for the dictatorship. That campaign is now creeping into Hong Kong, with at least three conferences between Hong Kong’s religious leaders and representatives of Beijing’s religious affairs apparatus. Even Hong Kong’s new cardinal, Stephen Chow, has called on Hong Kong Catholics to be “patriotic,” which is a euphemism for surrender to and co-option into the Communist Party. Chinese flags have been placed in the sanctuary of Hong Kong’s Anglican Cathedral and at one of its largest mosques.

In some respects, this is inevitable. Once Beijing exerted direct control of Hong Kong, the death-knell for religious freedom was sounded. First, freedom itself is indivisible. When freedom of expression, assembly, and association are dismantled, freedom of religion – which is interlinked with and interdependent on other basic freedoms – is unsustainable. Second, the regime in Beijing has always been hostile to religion, and at various times since 1949 has sought either to eradicate, repress, control, coerce or co-opt religion. 

Beijing’s hostility to religion in Hong Kong is likely exacerbated by the fact that many of the city’s pro-democracy activists are people of faith. From the father of the democracy movement Martin Lee to the founder of the now closed Apple Daily newspaper Jimmy Lai, who now faces the rest of his life in jail; and from the organizer of the 2014 Occupy Central demonstrations, Benny Tai, who also initiated the 2020 pro-democracy primaries to choose candidates for the Legislative Council and is now serving a long prison sentence, to the teenage activist Joshua Wong and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, people of faith were at the forefront of the city’s fight for freedom. Let’s not forget, in 2019 for a time one of the anthems of the protesters was “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.”

Where will all this lead? Strangulation of religious freedom by stealth. Pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong have already sounded the warnings, publishing articles last year attacking religion from various angles and calling for new regulations to restrict religious practice and establish a government department to vet, license, and monitor religious groups.

Beijing is unlikely to use headline-grabbing physical repression against religious groups in Hong Kong because, despite the dismantling of its freedoms and autonomy, it is still an international financial center with a degree of global scrutiny and foreign presence. Instead, it is opting for coercion, co-option and forcible compromise of conscience. 

As one religious scholar from Hong Kong put it, “The most violent form of attack on religious freedom is not necessarily the burning of churches and the killing of believers, for the persecutors kill the bodies but not the souls. Rather, the more dangerous and insidious attack on a religion could be its corruption from within, so that its believers can only practice the faith in name rather than in essence. In this regard, the CCP is about to use the latter strategy to attack religious freedom in Hong Kong.” Beijing can restrict religious freedom in Hong Kong by “exerting total control on churches without closing them.”

For this reason, the international community must monitor the situation closely. All 42 countries whose governments are represented in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA) must watch Hong Kong like hawks. The United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and other countries that have ambassadors or envoys for freedom of religion or belief must pay attention to Hong Kong. The United Nations’ special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief should engage with concerns about Hong Kong. 

New repressive laws in Hong Kong – likely to be introduced in coming months – should be analyzed for their impact on religion freedom. Diplomats in Hong Kong should engage with religious communities in the city. And people of conscience should speak out for people of faith in Hong Kong, when they are no longer able to speak for themselves.