Even before the arrest this week of its former top cleric, the Hong Kong Catholic Church was concerned about the effect of the comprehensive national security law of Chinese territory.
Local Catholic leaders recently decided to cancel annual commemorations of the bloody crackdown on protests in China in Tiananmen Square in 1989 for fear of breaking the law imposed by Beijing two years ago, according to church insiders.
The cancellation of this year ‘s commemorative event on June 4 underscores the shocking effect that Hong Kong’ s growing political shock has already had within religious communities.
But the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen on Wednesday sparked new upheaval in the city just days after hardline leader and former security chief John Lee, himself a Catholic, was confirmed as his next leader.
It is also likely to fuel divisions within the Catholic Church over how to respond to growing political repression in Hong Kong.
Police have charged Zen with collaborating with foreign forces, an offense under the 2020 security law. The 90-year-old former Hong Kong bishop is an outspoken human rights activist and was arrested along with four other administrators trustees of a fund set up to help pay the legal and medical fees of participants in pro-democracy demonstrations across the city in 2019.
Old priests and lay people in Hong Kong church said the cardinal’s target, who was released on parole Wednesday night, had deeply saddened Catholics in the city.
“I was shocked when he was arrested. . . I think there will be more repression of the church in Hong Kong in the future, “said one who, like other church members, declined to be identified for fear of repercussions from city authorities.
The Hong Kong Church for more than two decades has commemorated the repression by Chinese student-led protest troops in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. But last year Hong Kong police were seen standing outside the church doors holding video camera.
“It’s not a safe time for us to hold Mass in public,” said one person involved in the cancellation of this year’s commemorations. “We have security concerns because the political situation is tense.”
A priest said that this year “we will not mention June 4, but it will be in our hearts.”
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, is a Catholic and her successor Lee said last week that he still believed in the lessons he received as a child at a Jesuit school in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
But when asked by the Financial Times about the arrest of Zen, who was convicted by human rights groups and governments, including the US, Canada and the UK, Lee made it clear that Catholic credentials would not be protection for those accused of violating security law. “Actions will be taken accordingly, regardless of the person’s background,” Lee said.
It was Lee who oversaw the introduction of the law in a previous role as security secretary. The former Beijing-backed policeman was officially confirmed as Hong Kong’s next leader on Sunday and will take the oath on July 1.
“[Zen’s arrest] has also sent a warning that even religious leaders. . . “They can not be exempted from fines by law just because of their status,” said Lau Siu-kai, of the Chinese Studies Association of Hong Kong and Macau, a Beijing-based institute.
The Hong Kong Church said it was “extremely concerned”. “We call on the Hong Kong police and judicial authorities to handle Cardinal Zen’s case in accordance with justice,” the city diocese said. “We have always supported the rule of law. “We believe that in the future we will continue to enjoy religious freedom in Hong Kong.”
Incumbent Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow, who was appointed last year, has not taken a public stand on security law.
However, the cardinal’s arrest is likely to widen divisions in the Hong Kong church between pro-democracy activists like Zen and others who either supported the government or believed the church should not be involved in politics.
Pro-democracy activists have accused the church of being on the side of the last camp, with many citing a diplomatic deal in 2018 in which the Vatican agreed that Beijing should have a say in appointing bishops to China.
In the latest incident, a diocesan administrator resigned over a post on the “Catholic Road” Facebook page on April 27th. The post, which was quickly deleted, summed up a television interview in which a local priest accused China of trying to control religion in Hong Kong. The diocese said the administrator had resigned of their own free will.
The police investigation into Humanitarian Aid Fund 612, which was administered by Zen and which supported pro-democracy protesters, could also have implications for Hong Kong’s legal system.
Police said Thursday that they had complained to the Bar Association and the Law Firm about alleged misconduct by unidentified attorneys who took over the fund’s cases.
“The criminal investigation also revealed that a number of lawyers and attorneys were suspected of misconduct while providing legal services,” police said.
“It is clear [the authorities] have begun targeting lawyers who are offering support to political prisoners in Hong Kong, “said Eric Yan-ho Lai of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.” Legal representatives should not be afraid of what they represent. “
A Hong Kong priest said no area of city life would escape the tightening of political controls.
“If you ask if [local] priests are now more concerned about security law. . . “I would tell you that everyone in Hong Kong is concerned about the law,” he said.
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