Hong Kong churches no longer off-limits as Beijing tightens grip on dissent
By Theodora Yu
Yesterday at 8:11 a.m. EDT
HONG KONG — On a drizzly Sunday evening in May at the Hong Kong government headquarters, a small group gathered under a footbridge around an altar made with portable lights and a folding chair.
In a gray sweater and a purple stole, Father Franco Mella held Mass, like he has every Sunday for the past seven years, to pray for the activists and protesters arrested in the city’s widening crackdown on dissent. “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord …” the group sang, nearly drowned out by the traffic.
Moments later, a woman approached the group, took video and recorded the identity numbers of several participants before leaving in a police car. “We are mentally prepared to be arrested some day,” said Winnie Wong, one of the organizers.
Mella, an Italian priest who at 73 has been advocating for human rights for the past five decades, is unruffled by the attention. “If you can accept uncertainty, you won’t fear.”
Hong Kong’s wide-ranging crackdown on all forms of social protest is now being felt by its churches, a backbone of the city’s once vibrant activism, and its religious spaces are now being brought under state control much the way they are in the rest of China.
According to 18pastors and religious experts interviewed by The Washington Post, churches have been pushed into censoring themselves and avoiding appointing pastors deemed to have political views, and at least one major church is restructuring itself in case the government freezes its assets.
A study by the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement last year revealed that over a third of churches were now more inclined to adjust the content of their preaching in light of the political situation in the city.
One pastor said the nervous church leaders couldn’t order you to leave if they see you as a problem, but “they will ‘remind’ you, pressure you, so that you will have to leave on your own.” Like many of those interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the tense political situation.
Christianity has long had an outsize role in this former British colony with both opposition activists and leaders at the highest levels of power drawing inspiration from their faith. Hong Kong’s current and incoming chief executives, Carrie Lam and John Lee, are self-described Catholics educated incentury-old Catholic schools.
Pro-democracy advocates such as Joshua Wong and media mogul Jimmy Lai have cited their faith as the moral compass for their activism. Wong, raised as a Lutheran, led the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 and has said his faith strengthened his determination to fight for justice.
As part of Beijing’s efforts to rein in what it saw as increasingly unacceptable behavior in the city, it appointed in February 2020 a new head of Hong Kong and Macao affairs, Xi Baolong, who gained prominence for his earlier crackdown on illegal churches in Zhejiang, China, by removing their crosses.
Five months later, after the new security law was passed, a pro-Beijing state media outlet posted a list of 20 pastors, accusing some ofthem of being “riot supporters.”
Fearful of arrest, at least five outspoken pastors subsequently left for Britain and Taiwan. In April, a pastor was charged with sedition, for disrupting court proceedings and vilifying the judiciary after he commented on the ongoing trials on his YouTube channel.
Pastor Shou King-kong, who has been running sermons with 10 people at a time since January last year, said “mosquito-sized churches,” independent from registered church or charity organizations — and the new strictures of the state — will be the norm in the future.
“To continue to speak the truth and call out for social justice, to tell people what the Bible teaches and how the Christ taught us, shall be the greatest challenge we endeavor in this era,” Shou said.