Head of Asian bishops: Pray for Hong Kong amid China crackdown

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, attends an Oct. 10 candlelight interfaith prayer service in Yangon. Pope Francis will visit Myanmar Nov. 27-30. (CNS photo/Soe Zeya Tun, Reuters) 

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, has appealed to Christians and the people of faith throughout the world “to pray for Hong Kong” following the imposition by China on June 30 of a new law “on safeguarding national security” in this special administrative region.

Writing on behalf of the federation of the 19 Catholic bishops’ conferences of Asia on July 1, the Myanmar-born 71-year-old cardinal said, “I call on Christians of all traditions and people of all faiths, throughout Asia and the world, to pray for Hong Kong, and indeed for China and all her people, with great insistence.”

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He recalled that on the previous evening, China’s government had “imposed” a new national security law on Hong Kong “without systematic consultation with the general public.”

“I call on Christians of all traditions and people of all faiths, throughout Asia and the world, to pray for Hong Kong, and indeed for China and all her people, with great insistence.”

Hong Kong has a population of around 7.5 million people, many of whom have in recent years expressed concern and opposition to the progressive erosion of the freedoms guaranteed to them by the Basic Law signed by the United Kingdom and China at the time of the handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

Referring to the new national security legislation, Cardinal Bo wrote: “This law seriously diminishes Hong Kong’s freedoms and destroys the city’s ‘high degree of autonomy’ promised under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. This action brings a most significant change to Hong Kong’s constitution and is offensive to the spirit and letter of the 1997 handover agreement.”

He described Hong Kong as “one of the jewels of Asia, a ‘Pearl of the Orient,’ a crossroads between East and West, a gateway to China, a regional hub for free trade,” which “until now has enjoyed a healthy mixture of freedom and creativity.”

“This legislation potentially undermines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media freedom and academic freedom. Arguably, freedom of religion or belief is put at risk.”

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He acknowledged that a national security law “is not in itself wrong” and said, “every country has a right to legislate to safeguard protect national security.” He asserted, however, that “such legislation should be balanced with protection of human rights, human dignity and basic freedoms.” He made clear that the new law approved by China’s National People’s Congress does not meet these standards; instead, it “seriously weakens Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and Hong Kong’s autonomy” and “radically changes Hong Kong’s identity.”

Cardinal Bo, who for many years had fought for freedom in his native Myanmar, said in his letter, “I am concerned that the law poses a threat to basic freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong.” He stated frankly, “This legislation potentially undermines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media freedom and academic freedom.”

“Arguably,” he continued, “freedom of religion or belief is put at risk.”

Speaking as the president of the F.A.B.C., the cardinal drew attention to the fact that “according to many reports, freedom of religion or belief in Mainland China is suffering the most severe restrictions experienced since the Cultural Revolution.”

“According to many reports, freedom of religion or belief in Mainland China is suffering the most severe restrictions experienced since the Cultural Revolution.”

Aware that some have argued that religious freedom would not be impaired by the new legislation, the cardinal clearly is not convinced. “Even if freedom of worship in Hong Kong is not directly or immediately affected,” he said, “the new security law and its broad criminalization of ‘subversion,’ ‘secession’ and ‘colluding with foreign political forces’ could result, for example, in the monitoring of religious preaching, the criminalization of candle-lit prayer vigils, and the harassment of places of worship that offer sanctuary or sustenance to protesters.”

Cardinal Bo added, “It is my prayer that this law will not give the government licence to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations and the services they provide to the general public.”

He said, “Clear assurance should be given for my brother bishops and fellow priests as they prepare their homilies, Protestant clergy as they ponder their sermons, and for religious leaders of other faiths too who must instruct their communities.” He insisted that “the participation of religious bodies in social affairs should not be disturbed.”

Recalling that “provisions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantee freedom of belief,” Cardinal Bo raised the question that many believers, including clergy, in Hong Kong are now asking: “Will religious leaders now be criminalized for preaching about human dignity, human rights, justice, liberty, truth?”

Cardinal Bo: “In the spirit of the prophets, martyrs and saints of our faith, I urge people to pray for Hong Kong today.”

Speaking on behalf of the bishops of Asia, the cardinal remarked, “We have learned from heavy experience that wherever freedom as a whole is undermined, freedom of religion or belief—sooner or later—is affected.”

He recalled that over the past year “there have been many protests in Hong Kong, most of them peaceful.” He noted that “while over 9,000 protesters have been arrested...not a single police officer has been held accountable for their disproportionate brutality.” He insisted, “We hold that all—protesters and police officers—are accountable according to the law.”

“It is imperative that the underlying causes of unrest should be attended to, and that meaningful reforms and compromises are reached,” the cardinal said. Instead, he said, “this national security law threatens to exacerbate tensions, not to provide solutions.”

Cardinal Bo concluded his letter saying, “For these reasons and in the spirit of the prophets, martyrs and saints of our faith, I urge people to pray for Hong Kong today.” He also urged believers worldwide to “[p]ray for the leaders of China and Hong Kong, that they respect the promises made to Hong Kong, the promise to protect basic liberties and rights.” He appealed to all believers “to pray for peace.”

Cardinal Bo’s letter adds to the chorus of protest and concern from governments and civic and religious leaders across the globe at China’s breach of the international agreement signed 23 years ago as well as its imposition of a law that removes fundamental freedoms and rights guaranteed to the citizens of Hong Kong by that agreement. Protests of China’s actions have come from many governments, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada and the United States.

[WATCH: The Catholic Church in China: a short documentary]

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