Skip to content

Hong Kong bill threatens confessional seal, warn advocates

Catholic priests could face pressure to violate the sacramental seal of confession if a new security bill becomes law in Hong Kong, human rights advocates said Wednesday.

The interior of a confessional. Wikiolo via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A group of 13 activists and three organizations signed a March 13 statement expressing “profound and grave concerns about the implications for the practice of freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong” if lawmakers approve the Safeguarding National Security Bill.

Activists’ concerns focus on Clause 12 of the bill, which says that if citizens are aware that another person “committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense,” they must disclose the information to a police officer or face a 14-year prison sentence.


The March 13 statement, which was organized by British human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers and exiled Hong Kong activist Frances Hui, said: “While a priest might encourage a penitent who has committed a serious crime to confess that crime to the authorities, the priest cannot report it himself and must never be held criminally liable for having heard that confession.” 

“To force a priest to reveal what has been said in Confession, against his will and conscience and in total violation of the privacy of the individual confessing, is a total violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as such is completely unacceptable and must be condemned by people of conscience of all faiths and none throughout the world.”

The signatories appealed to Pope Francis  and other global religious leaders to defend freedom of religion in Hong Kong and advocate against the new security legislation.

In 2019, Pope Francis ordered the publication of a note underlining the Church’s absolute commitment to defending the Seal of Confession, which requires priests who hear confessions to maintain absolute secrecy concerning sins confessed by penitents. 

The Vatican note said that “the inviolable secrecy of Confession comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, least of all, in the civil one.”

Hong Kong is home to around 392,000 Catholics out of a total population of more than 7 million. Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan, who has led the Diocese of Hong Kong since 2021, has so far not commented publicly on the Safeguarding National Security Bill.

Chow has stated publicly that prior to becoming bishop in 2021 he attended banned public gatherings, including vigils to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre. 

Since his installation as bishop in December 2021, Chow has appeared to steer a course of conciliation in his diocese, where political divisions around Hong Kong’s legal status and the erosion of civil liberties are present in the local Catholic community.

Following a visit to the mainland last year, Chow wrote about the Christian duty to be good citizens, while acknowledging tensions between the Church and the government, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland.  

While reminding local Catholics of their duty to be good citizens, as taught by the Church, Bishop Chow also frankly acknowledged tensions and problems with state authorities and said that dialogue “is not about kowtowing.”

The new security bill is known informally as “Article 23” legislation, in reference to a provision in Hong Kong’s basic law, which came into effect in 1997, when the U.K. handed over the territory to China.

Article 23 of the basic law says that Hong Kong’s authorities “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, [and] subversion” against China’s government.

An attempt to implement the article was abandoned after widespread protests in 2003. 

The Hong Kong government sparked further mass demonstrations in 2019-20 after it sought to pass legislation allowing political detainees to be deported to mainland China to face trial.

In 2020, Chinese lawmakers imposed the Hong Kong national security law, resulting in a major crackdown on civil liberties. 

Subscribe now

In a March 7 statement announcing the new bill’s publication, Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu said that both Hong Kong’s government and Legislative Council, the city’s unicameral legislature, should “make every endeavor to complete the enactment of the legislation at the earliest possible time.”

“The sooner the legislation is completed, the sooner national security can be effectively safeguarded, so that Hong Kong can focus on economic development, improve people’s livelihoods, and maintain Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” said Lee, who is a Catholic.

Lee was elected to the office of chief executive in 2022 by Hong Kong’s specially constituted electoral college. He ran unopposed, as the sole candidate approved by the mainland government.

Lee had previously told Hong Kong media that he would enact new security measures to push back against anti-Beijing and free speech demonstrators in Hong Kong, and keep local political groups from working with foreign governments.

The Article 23 bill was published March 8, nine days after the end of a consultation period that saw more than 13,000 submissions. The bill was introduced the same day in the legislature, at a specially scheduled meeting. 

After the imposition of the national security law in 2020, prominent pro-democracy figures, including Catholic media mogul Jimmy Lai, were detained, raising fears that outspoken religious leaders such Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun might also be targeted.

When the retired Bishop of Hong Kong was arrested in May 2022, he was initially held on national security grounds, including alleged collusion with foreign agents. But he was ultimately charged only with failing to register a humanitarian fund through the proper channels.

In November 2022, a court convicted and fined Zen for failing to officially register the fund helping pro-democracy protesters as a society.

Agnes Chow, a Catholic pro-democracy activist released from jail in 2021, announced in December 2023 that she had accepted permanent exile, “considering the situation in Hong Kong, my personal safety, my physical and mental health.” 

In January 2024, Catholic newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai pled not guilty to charges of conspiracy to produce seditious publications and conspiracy to collude with foreign powers. He has faced a long cycle of court hearings and prison terms since 2020, and the forced closure of his Apple Daily newspaper in 2021.

The 16 signatories of the March 13 statement also highlighted Lai’s case.

They wrote: “The proposed legislation criminalizes as ‘sedition’ any attempt to advocate for legislative changes or criticize the People’s Republic of China and, where these activities are conducted by foreign NGOs, ‘external interference.’”

“The trial of Apple Daily founder, Jimmy Lai, has already demonstrated how innocuous text exchanges with foreign journalists can count as evidence of courting ‘foreign interference’ in Hong Kong.”

Subscribe now

Comments 8