Published: 00:11, July 9, 2024
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Religious freedom: Hong Kong’s churches as vibrant as ever
By Grenville Cross

On June 26, the US State Department published its Report on International Religious Freedom 2023. Another hatchet job, it was issued through one of its agencies, the Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF). Its mandate, at least on paper, is to promote universal respect for freedom of religion or belief, such being “a core objective of US foreign policy”.

If places are found wanting, the US secretary of state can, under the International Religious Freedom Act 1998, designate them as “countries of particular concern”. An adverse assessment has consequences, including sanctions. It is no coincidence that the US’ geopolitical rivals, like China, Iran and Russia, have been targeted, with each designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC).

Since 1999, China has been designated as a CPC. On Dec 29, 2023, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, used this to justify the renewal of the US restrictions on the export to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment.

Although religious freedom is guaranteed in Hong Kong by the Basic Law (Art.32) and the Bill of Rights Ordinance (Art.15) (which incorporates the religious protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), this did not shield it from OIRF criticism. Whereas the State Department claims its “guiding principle is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly and fairly as possible”, this was disregarded in the report’s compilation. The research was flawed, with reliance being placed on dubious secondary sources.

The OIRF said “US embassies prepared the initial drafts” of its reports, assisted by “the efforts of hundreds of people in the Department of State and at US missions abroad”. This included the US consulate general in Hong Kong, headed by Gregory May.

The OIRF gave the impression that religious freedom in Hong Kong is under threat, which could not be further from the truth. Although the US-based Freedom House, notorious for its anti-China bias, found that religious freedom was “generally respected” in Hong Kong, the OIRF nonetheless trumpeted its downgrade of the city because of what it (Freedom House) claimed was “evidence that the broader crackdown on dissent has prompted some churches to self-censor sermons and curtail other religious activities”.

The OIRF also argued that religious groups had faced retaliation for participating in social movements. This was presumably a reference to the fact that everybody is expected to observe the law, including the regulation of public protests, even if they are clerics with international clout.

Whatever Gregory May told the State Department (it must have been highly selective), it failed to conduct its own fact-checking. This should not have been difficult, as May’s predecessor, Hanscom (“Candle lighter”) Smith, now lives in the US, and could have set the record straight.

On June 27, Smith, normally eager to malign Hong Kong, for once allowed candor to get the better of him. He told the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that not only was the media in Hong Kong “still comparatively open” and the internet “virtually unfettered,” but that “religious freedom persists”. However, he does not appear to be among the “hundreds of people” consulted by the State Department, and he was by no means alone.

On April 19, the Anglican archbishop and primate of Hong Kong, Andrew Chan Au-ming, was interviewed by Friday Beyond Spotlights. When asked about religious freedom in Hong Kong, he was unequivocal. He said, “In Hong Kong we enjoy religious freedom for a long time,” adding there were “a lot of different faiths in a multifaith city”. Although this echoed the sentiments of his predecessor, Archbishop Paul Kwong, it was the last thing the OIRF wanted to hear.

When the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) was enacted in 2020, Western commentators portrayed it as a threat to religious freedom, but Kwong knew otherwise. He explained that the NSL was “necessary for our well-being,” and “targets only lawbreakers, and it does not undermine any freedom of Hong Kong, in particular the freedom of religion”. He then added that the NSL “does not affect the church or any other religious organization”, which the OIRF disregarded.

Given his honesty, Kwong inevitably found himself in the firing line. The UK-based Hong Kong Watch, the anti-China hate machine run by the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers, portrayed him as a communist apparatchik. But notwithstanding its notorious record of bigotry and myth-making, the OIRF relied on Hong Kong Watch in its report. It quoted Rogers’ claim in November that the Hong Kong authorities were “diluting religious education”, and that the NSL was being used to pursue “patriotic” education programs. However, the OIRF failed to explain that it is no longer possible for politically motivated teachers to poison the minds of their pupils, and that the children are no longer being told to disrespect their country.

As in 2023, the OIRF buttressed its findings with some crude sensationalism. Using convoluted language likely to mislead the average reader, it asserted that the “trial” of the Catholic Church’s retired cardinal, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, on charges of violating the NSL’s prohibition on colluding with foreign powers, “remained pending”. This was deceptive, as Zen, although arrested at one point, has not been charged with any NSL offenses, and there is no pending trial.

As previously, the OIRF fired criticisms in all directions, hoping some would stick.

In the US, it is customary for the American flag to be displayed in places of public worship. Indeed, the Flag Code (1942) stipulates that, when displayed in a church, the flag “should occupy the position of honor and be placed at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the congregation or audience”. It was, therefore, extraordinary that the OIRF sought to arouse concerns over places of worship in Hong Kong also displaying the national flag on significant occasions. However, after the national flag was displayed at St John’s Cathedral on Oct 1, its spokesman, Anglican Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, pointed out that this did not violate any Christian principles.

Catholic Church Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan also took flak over his links with his co-religionists elsewhere in China (he wanted to establish a “bridge”). When, for example, he met with the Catholic bishop of Beijing, Joseph Li Shan, he explained that, under the church’s Catechism (religious code), “it is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom”. Wise words, but wasted on the OIRF.

Indeed, Chow’s words were not a million miles away from those of Jesus Christ, who famously advised his followers, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” However, this was not something the OIRF could (or wanted to) get its head around, given its preoccupation with scoring cheap points. As recognized throughout the Western world, people are free to pursue their faiths while also respecting their country’s laws and values, and Hong Kong is no different (a point May should have rammed home).

In Hong Kong, religion is freely practiced and the city is home to many faiths. They include Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Taoism. Apart from giving instruction, many religious institutions have also established faith schools, provided health and welfare facilities, and organized charitable activities.

The Christian community, for example, numbers about 1.3 million people, most of whom are Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The Protestant community comprises about 1.04 million Christians, of whom more than 300,000 attend church services regularly. It runs five tertiary institutions, 130 nurseries, 260 kindergartens, 206 primary schools and 180 secondary schools. It also operates over 30 theological and bible seminaries, 150 publishing houses, 58 bookstores, and 55 media and art agencies (which produce Christian Times and Christian Weekly, regular television programs, and a weekly radio show).

The Protestant community runs eight hospitals (and has 52 hospital chaplaincies). Its 160 social welfare organizations provide services at over 130 youth and family centers, 11 children’s homes, 182 elderly centers and nursing homes, and 60 rehabilitation centers for drug addicts and the disabled. It is active in all areas of society, and the Roman Catholic community is no less vibrant.

Established as a mission prefecture in 1841, Hong Kong’s Roman Catholic Church has about 395,000 followers served by 279 priests, 98 brothers, and 419 sisters in 52 parishes. It maintains close ties with the Vatican and the global Catholic community, and publishes two weekly newspapers, Kung Kao Po and the Sunday Examiner. It comprises 39 churches, 28 chapels and 24 halls for religious services conducted in Cantonese, while three-fifths of the parishes also provide services in English and, sometimes, Tagalog.

With the assistance of the Catholic Education Office, the Roman Catholic Church’s 249 schools and kindergartens are currently educating 136,804 pupils. Its principal social welfare arm is Caritas-Hong Kong, which provides medical and social services to at least six hospitals, 10 clinics, 47 social and family service centers, 23 hostels, 15 homes for the elderly, and 34 rehabilitation services.

By any yardstick, the Christian churches (about which the OIRF obsesses) are thriving, and going from strength to strength. Like the other faiths, they are heavily engaged in good works, and life goes on as it has always done. The faithful are free to worship as they wish, and the political activities of a few bad apples have not affected this. As in the West, a balance exists between religious freedom and social responsibility.

When the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance (SNSO) was enacted in March, foreign commentators claimed it would endanger religious observance. This was never going to happen, as the churches understood their responsibilities. As the Communications Office of the Catholic Diocese explained, the diocese recognized that “as a citizen, it has an obligation to national security”. After Hong Kong Watch made the bizarre claim that the secrets of the confessional would no longer be safe, the church made clear that the SNSO would “not alter the confidential nature of confessions (Sacrament of Reconciliation) of the Church”, and so it has proved.

King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740-86) once said, “It matters not to the state what metaphysic dominates men’s minds,” and this reflects China’s policy in Hong Kong (and Macao). Since 1997, three of the chief executives have been practicing Roman Catholicism, and Beijing has never treated religious inclination as a bar for preferment in any sector. People of faith are as free as they ever have been to pursue their religion, and it must be hoped that Gregory May will try harder in the future to convey a valid message to his superiors in Washington, DC.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.