Hong Kong Catholics ‘caught between the hammer and the anvil’

News: Hong Kong, China

Catholics in the Diocese of Hong Kong remain divided and anxious after several civil rights activists were sentenced to prison terms on Friday for attending a prayer rally in 2019. 

Catholic businessman and media owner Jimmy Lai was sentenced April 17 to spend a total of 14 months in prison, as sentences were passed in two separate cases against him. 

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On Friday, Judge Amanda Woodcock handed Lai a four month sentence for attending a Christian prayer vigil in August, 2019, on top of a one year term for Lai’s making public statements judged to have invited foriegn interference in Hong Kong affairs following the imposition of the National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong in July, 2020.

The year-long sentence was reduced by one month for Lai’s guilty plea, and by an additional month because of his age — he is 72. 

The founder of Apple Daily, one of the few remaining media outlets in Hong Kong to be publicly pro-democracy, was first arrested in August last year under the terms of National Security Law, which criminalizes a range of previously protected civil rights, including free speech.

A Catholic priest working in the chancery office of the Diocese of Hong Kong told The Pillar over the weekend that the situation in the diocese was “very anxious.”

“The crackdown on free speech is public and meant as an example,” he said. “Jimmy Lai [being sentenced] is a very clear message: he is pro-free press, pro-democracy, and visibly Catholic, and he’s a warning to all those groups.”

The priest asked not to be named, citing concerns over the National Security Law.

Also sentenced on Friday for similar crimes was Yeung Sum, the former leader of the Democratic Party, and Lee Cheuk-yan, who served in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council from 1998-2016.

“You have to understand,” the priest told The Pillar, “Hong Kong is not ‘one thing,’ including Catholics here. Many are very pro-democracy, pro-freedom in that sense, especially the young. But many others, the older generation especially, are proudly Chinese and are very happy to support the mainland government in principle.” 

“In the middle are many Hong Kongers, and many Hong Kong Catholics, who are simply afraid of the situation; they see the tensions mounting and worry they will be caught between the hammer and the anvil.”

The political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated steadily over the last two years. 

In 2019, the government of the “special administrative region” attempted to bring in legislation that would have allowed Hong Kongers accused of certain crimes to be extradited to the mainland for trial. After nearly a year of wide-spread demonstrations by pro-democracy activists, which brought parts of the city to a standstill and triggered a massive police backlash, the legislation was withdrawn. 

In 2020, the mainland government imposed a new National Security Law on Hong Kong. The law effectively criminalized political opposition to the Communist government as “secessionist activity,” and triggered further public demonstrations and a sweeping crackdown on free speech, including the arrest and imprisonment of several pro-democracy activists and journalists, many of them Catholics.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, who retired as Bishop of Hong Kong has previously called the arrest and prosecution of Jimmy Lai part of a campaign of “political intimidation” against journalists and pro-civil rights activists.

“Jimmy Lai is obviously the one who runs the only newspaper which is still completely free,” said Zen in December. “There is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression.”

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The Diocese of Hong Kong has been without a permanent leader for more than two years, since the January 2019 death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung. Since then, Cardinal John Tong Hong, Yeung’s predecessor, has been in temporary charge.

In September last year, Hon warned priests in the diocese to steer clear of politics in their homilies. In a letter sent to all clergy, the cardinal warned that “the homily is not meant to convey the preacher’s personal views (such as his own view on a social or political issue) but God’s message.”

Catholic schools in the diocese have also been told to ensure that teachers “foster the correct values on national identity” and ensure respect for Chinese national symbols in Catholic schools,  including the Chinese flag and national anthem.

Attempts by the Vatican to appoint a permanent bishop for the diocese have been repeatedly derailed because of political concerns, with plans to appoint current Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing abandoned over his close identification with protests against a failed extradition law in Hong Kong in 2019.

A second appointment to succeed Yeung, diocesan vicar general Fr. Peter Choy Wai-man, was also approved and then rescinded over concerns he was too close to the mainland government and would prove unacceptable to the local Catholic community and clergy.

The Pillar has previously reported that a third choice for bishop had been identified by Rome, but any final decision was being delayed because of the escalating political tensions in Hong Kong.