Exactly a week from today, we will celebrate Christmas. Yet for the first time ever I worry for the fate of the Church in Hong Kong, and the ability of Hong Kong Christians to worship and live out their faith freely. I have spent all my adult life defending the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, and especially around Asia, for people of all faiths and none – but until now I never expected Hong Kong to rank among the places where that basic freedom would be threatened.
Yet today, as freedom itself is dismantled in Hong Kong, freedom of religion is coming under ever increasing threat. Hong Kong’s most prominent lay Catholic, the great Jimmy Lai, is in jail, facing serious charges under the National Security Law, along with fellow Catholic Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong, who has always been clear about how he is motivated by his Christian faith. And last week Hong Kong police raided the Good Neighbour North District Church and HSBC froze the bank accounts of the church, its pastor, Roy Chan, and his wife. Two of Pastor Chan’s colleagues were arrested, and his own arrest has been ordered.
Of course, one can argue that these cases are political, not ‘religious’. Mr Lai, Mr Wong and Ms Chow have been jailed because of their defence of freedom and opposition to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, not because of their faith, and Pastor Chan is targeted because of his courageous assistance to protesters on the streets of Hong Kong last year. But nevertheless, ultimately, they’re being penalized for expressing their conscience – and, in their case, that is intertwined with their religious belief. It says something that a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Johnnie Moore, announced this week he was adopting Mr Lai through the “Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project”.
It seems that the Church – along with everyone else in Hong Kong – is effectively being presented with a choice: be loyal to the CCP or suffer the regime’s retribution. Or, to put it in more moral, theological terms, sell your soul to the devil or be prepared to carry your cross.
Regrettably, there are parts of the Church in Hong Kong that have opted for the former. Cardinal John Tong and the Catholic Diocese have instructed clergy to be careful in their sermons, to “watch your words” and avoid talking about topics that might upset the government. Presumably topics such as justice, human dignity, freedom of conscience – values at the very heart of the Christian faith. Catholic schools are now adopting so-called “patriotic education” in their curriculum with some enthusiasm, and issuing warnings to students not to engage in “subversive” activities. The Diocese even discouraged praying for Hong Kong earlier this year, despite a call by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, to do so.
The retiring Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong is even worse, actively supporting the National Security Law and criticizing his fellow bishops in Britain for speaking out for Hong Kong’s freedoms. He has snuggled up very closely to the CCP, taking the biblical maxim of “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” rather too far. It will be interesting to see whether his successor is able to exert even a little moral leadership despite these very constrained circumstances.
There are of course many brave Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who continue to hold firm to their principles, while navigating the new context. Cardinal Joseph Zen is the most obvious example, and he has most recently described Mr Lai’s imprisonment as “obviously a case of political intimidation”.
When I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover, I worshipped at St Andrew’s Church on Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Each Christmas that I was in Hong Kong, I went to St Andrew’s for the midnight Christmas Eve service. The rest of the year, I sometimes visited other churches on Sundays, particularly Community Church Hong Kong (which met at the very top of Central Plaza, with views that seemed almost in reach of heaven), Union Church and the Methodist Church in Wanchai. Not only did I visit other churches, I regularly preached in them. I founded, in my spare time, a Hong Kong branch of the Christian human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an organization I have worked with all my adult life, for the cause of religious freedom for all. I organized conferences on religious freedom held in the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui, and prayer vigils for those persecuted for their faith. But it was always for people suffering elsewhere in the region – never did I imagine I might one day be praying for people of faith in Hong Kong under pressure.
This year’s COVID-19 lockdown in Britain has brought many challenges, but some benefits, one of which has been the ability to “go” to church anywhere in the world, online. Having become a Catholic seven years ago, I have regularly attended Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Consumption in Hong Kong, in spiritual solidarity with the city from which I was banned three years ago and which was once my home. There is at least one priest at the Cathedral, Fr Gregoire Vignola, who has not sold out. His sermons are a constant source of inspiration to me, as I am sure they are to many.
I will never forget what he said in June - “We need empowerment especially at this moment when we Hong Kong people feel more and more threatened by Beijing.”
And one Sunday in August, after reflecting on the day’s readings which were about persecution and suffering, he asked: “Do we realize that this is probably what is awaiting us Christians in Hong Kong in the coming year?”
And on the demand to “take up your cross and follow him” he said: “Obviously it is what will be asked from us Christians in Hong Kong in the coming years .... Hong Kong is becoming just like another city in China under the rule of the central power .... And the whole of Christianity in China is more in danger now than it was 20 years ago, being more and more severely controlled.”
And at the very beginning of Mass he said this: “I really think that the time has come for the Church in Hong Kong and all Christians to discover and to pay the cost of Christ’s discipleship. But it happens that we are weak and cowardly, full of fear of losing something ... We were thinking we would always be the winner ... But now, facing the power of the central government, it seems that we become the loser ... Let us turn to God to ask for pardon for our failures and at the same time asking Him for strength and courage.”
Freedom of worship – the ability to go to church on Sundays – may not be restricted immediately. But freedom of worship is only one dimension of religions freedom, and an anodyne one if it is bereft of conscience, values and meaning. Church buildings may remain, crosses may not – at least in the immediate future – be torn down as they are in mainland China, but if pastors are hounded for standing for justice, priests ordered by their hierarchy to tone down their sermons and if churches that help vulnerable young activists in need of humanitarian and moral support are raided by the police, then religious freedom in its fullest form is already under assault in Hong Kong.
Churches have a tough choice to make – to compromise and sell out; to stay silent and hope to stay safe; or to live up to their values and risk everything. Their choice is not made any easier by the shameful silence of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The words of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up to the Nazis should, however, ring in their ears: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil … Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”.
I would not normally write so openly about faith in a publication like this. But a week before Christmas, with freedom under fire, I can’t stay silent. For Christmas is not about shopping and food and trees, decorations, gifts and lights. It’s about love, liberation and revolution leading to redemption. A revolution of the soul, certainly, but one with inevitable political ramifications if we apply it to the way we live our lives and build our societies. And we can be clear: Christmas and Communist dictatorship don’t mix.
Last Sunday I went to Mass in Hong Kong – online, from my home in London – and I lit candles for Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and the 12 jailed Hong Kongers in Shenzhen. The first reading that day was so appropriate. It was from Isaiah and it says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me... he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners”. And the opening hymn in the Cathedral, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”, contained these words: “He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free; to take away transgression, and rule in equity. He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong; to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong; to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light, whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight.”
As we prepare for Christmas – whatever your beliefs – let us renew our efforts to be light in the darkness, and may that be especially true for the Church in Hong Kong in expectation of darker times still to come. If the Christian story is to offer any hope though, it is the knowledge that the original Christmas story, itself born in injustice, ends in Resurrection, the greatest revolution of our times – and may that be the outcome for Hong Kong, one day.
(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).)
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