Report highlights the threat to religious freedom in Hong Kong and the need for international action against China crackdown

Susan KorahA report presented on Nov. 21 to the Canadian parliament by Benedict Rogers, the British co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, raised several red flags about the insidious but dangerous erosion of religious freedom in Hong Kong.

It alerted the government and the people of Canada to the impact of draconian laws on people of all faiths, including Hong Kong’s 859,000 Christians, both Catholic and Protestant.

“It’s fair to say, and the report makes this clear, that freedom of worship, narrowly defined, is still intact. People in Hong Kong are still free to go to church, to the mosque, to the temple or the synagogue, to go to places of worship, and to access sacred scriptures and religious texts and literature,” Rogers told me.

However, the warning bells in the report clang loud and clear.

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It states emphatically that not only is freedom of religion already being threatened in Hong Kong, but worse is yet to come unless the international community stands up to China’s harassment of people of faith.

The report authored by Rogers is called Sell Out My Soul: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Kong.

It sharply outlines the strategies used by the Communist Party of China and its associates in the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government to curtail religious freedom and bring faith groups under its control.

Draconian legislation resulting in forced self-censorship by clergy, the revamping of curricula in religious schools to include mandatory Communist Party propaganda and the “Sinicization” of religion are ways in which religious freedom is being threatened, explained Rogers.

“It’s almost impossible to find clergy who will preach in their sermons on anything relating, explicitly or implicitly, to human rights, human dignity, freedom or justice,” he said. “This essentially means co-option, coercion and corruption of religion. Rogers pointed out, however, that the suppression of religion in Hong Kong is more subtle than in mainland China, where there is severe and sometimes violent persecution of religion, including the dismantling of crosses, the closure, destruction or desecration of houses of worship and the arrest and imprisonment of religious leaders.

“No churches have been closed, but certainly clergy have been arrested,” he said. “Notably the arrest last year of then 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, and also the imprisonment of Pastor Garry Pang and the arrest of Pastor Alan Keung.”

Rogers’ report described some alarming details that linked the pressure on churches in Hong Kong and the pro-human rights activism of some of its leaders and prominent members.

On Nov. 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 Cardinal Stephen Chow. His trip came just a week after 10 archbishops and bishops from around the world – including Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller – issued a petition calling for the release of 75-year-old Jimmy Lai, the Catholic publisher of Apple Daily (a popular newspaper) and a pro-democracy activist who has already spent almost three years in jail. Lai’s paper was forced to close down when the Hong Kong government froze its assets in 2021.

The Hong Kong government reacted furiously to the petition, calling it “misleading and slanderous” and accusing the signatories of “blatantly undermining” the rule of law and meddling in Hong Kong affairs.

Former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney, who served in Beijing from 2009-201, was one of several dignitaries present at the Canadian launch of Sell Out My Soul.

Describing the report as “clear, compelling and carefully researched,” he said it calls attention to “the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party, which has steadily wrapped Hong Kong in its coils, has now begun to devour religious freedom in the territory.”

“This is an unflinching exercise in reading the signs of the times,” Mulroney said. “And the signs are worrying. Just as it crushed religious freedom on the mainland, China, as the report makes very clear, has now commenced its assault on those same freedoms in Hong Kong.”

The former ambassador called on the government of Canada to “be monitoring, reporting on and engaging in advocacy on behalf of religious freedom in Hong Kong.”

Charles Burton, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former Canadian diplomat in China, said that “for the authorities in Beijing the international openness of Hong Kong is seen as threatening collusion with foreign forces.”

“Will the Catholic Church in Hong Kong be merged into Beijing’s Catholic Patriotic Association and forced to cut links with the Vatican? Will the Protestant churches be merged into the post-denominational China Christian Council and forced to disconnect from their multinational councils and synods?” asked Burton.

“The future of religion in Hong Kong is not looking bright right now,” he stated.

“Hong Kong Watch did a great job with the report,” said Garnett Genuis, MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan and host of the launch.

“There has been a horrific escalation of religious persecution in mainland China. The dynamics are different in Hong Kong, but it’s important to note that there is an intersection between religious freedom and political freedom there,” said Genius.

The report named several key leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. All are Christians, including Catholics such as Zen, 85-year-old barrister Martin Lee, known as the father of the democracy movement, and Lai, who is facing a new trial under the National Security Law, which could lead to a life sentence.

“The current government of Canada is not very responsive to threats of religious freedom,” said Genuis. “But the Conservative Party will continue to monitor and advocate for religious freedom in Hong Kong and other countries, including Canada.”

Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist. This article was submitted by The Catholic Register.

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