By Jonah McKeown
The acting president of the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students told CNA this week that he would like to see Catholics and other Christians take on a larger role in ongoing protests against the government, amid fears of a crackdown by Chinese authorities.
“For this movement, it’s a great chance for the Catholics and [Protestant] Christians to cooperate with each other,” Edwin Chow, a student studying Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, told CNA.
“It’s a good chance for us to become united. Because I think for most of the Catholics and Christians, we have the same values, the same goal…so that’s why we cooperate, and I think after Christians and Catholics cooperate, or strengths, our power becomes stronger.”
Hundreds of thousands of protestors in Hong Kong have been demonstrating against the government’s plans to allow extraditions to mainland China, where Communist courts would try alleged criminals— a plan which as of June has been indefinitely suspended.
Since the bill’s suspension, the protestors have also spoken out against an excessive use of force by the Hong Kong police, including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas, which have led to injuries.
The apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, has asked the government to eliminate the extradition law completely, and for an independent inquiry into the excessive use of force by the Hong Kong police.
While Chow said that Christians, among them Catholics, had a more major role when the protests began— leading the singing of hymns such as “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” in the streets during the protests, for example— their role has since diminished.
As the protests have continued, he said some participants became “more aggressive, more radical.” Chow said he thinks the protests have become more radical because even after two marches in June saw more than a million marchers, the government has still not answered the protestors’ demands.
Many of the protestors began to take action such as try to break into the legislative council building, or clash with police out of frustration.
“I think the Christian groups and the Catholic groups should participate more in the protests, to take a more major role, because I think nowadays the protests become more radical, and people get very emotional, I think,” Chow commented.
“For the Catholic groups, for the Christian groups, we have the responsibility and we have the power to calm our friends down. Because I think singing hymns, just in the beginning, it creates a peaceful atmosphere, and it has a power to keep everyone very calm. So I think we can use this when we do this again.”
The threat of the extradition bill should be important to Catholics, Chow said, because they are afraid that if it is reintroduced and passes, it will severely affect religious freedom, giving the Chinese government additional license to arrest Christians and transfer them to mainland China if they commit “crimes” against the mainland.
He cited a case in 2001 where Hong Kongers brought bibles to mainland China, and the Chinese government arrested them.
“The Chinese government is suppressing the Church in mainland China, and so we are worried that when we have communication with the mainland Church, maybe one day the Chinese government will also arrest the Hong Kong people to suppress Hong Kong people,” he said.
Though the extradition bill has been withdrawn, the situation in Hong Kong is not over.
Demonstrators are calling for the proposal to be definitively withdrawn, and some are demanding Lam’s resignation.
Chow said more than 160,000 students, teachers, and alumni signed a petition against the extradition bill.
The federation had been concerned about the extradition bill since May, and so they started to raise public awareness of the issue by handing out leaflets in early June, Chow said.
The group also organized prayer meetings and Masses near the protest sites in the beginning of June, when the larger protests started.
Chow said the clergy have been very supportive. The Federation invited bishop emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen to celebrate Mass on June 16, in front of the government headquarters.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing has also been very active in going to the protest sites, supporting the young people, and vocally supporting the protestors. Bishop Ha took part in a continuous ecumenical prayer meeting outside the Legislative Council building with thousands of Christians overnight after one rally.
“Other ordinary Catholics, some of the older Catholics, they also join in our activities. So you can see that not only the teenagers are supporting, participating in the whole protest, but the older people, some adults…they also join, they also support the whole protest.”
Henry Au, an entrepreneur who serves on the board of directors for the Irish Chamber of Commerce for Hong Hong, is one such older Catholic who has been supporting the movement. He told CNA that although he had only attended two or three of the actual marches, he has been trying to materially support the protestors however he can.
He said older Catholics are less likely to go and march in the street, but they are still able to assist by providing funds to hold Masses and buy protection gear for the protestors.
He said the police will often seize protesters’ cell phones and use the photos on them as evidence against them, and telecom companies are helping the government to trace phone numbers. To guard against this, he said older Catholics have bought the protestors portable WiFi hotspots so they can connect without being traced.
“We don’t say the kids are always right…but you shouldn’t be using bullets, or even plastic bullets, to shoot their heads,” Au said. “They way they are treating the younger generation is totally unacceptable.”
He said the protestors have, on the whole, been peaceful and not destructive. On Sept. 1, the students will have to go back to school, he said, so it remains to be seen whether the protests will continue after the summer break ends.
Chow said last week some protestors found that there were undercover policemen within the crowds. The government may use this strategy to create a “sense of terror” so that the protestors no longer trust each other and are divided, he said.
Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Asia News, told EWTN News Nightly that Catholic youth are “totally involved” in the protest against the extradition law. He said older people might be less inclined to take part in the protests because of threats of violence.
“These two requests are the main requests of the movement [that] is doing all these demonstrations in Hong Kong,” Cervellera said.
The Chinese government has influenced the government of Hong Kong, Cervellera said, refusing to allow full democracy in the territory and trying to control the education system, which has negatively affected Hong Kong’s economy.
Hong Kong has total freedom of worship and evangelization, Cervellera said, because for the past 50 years it has been a “liberal society” where the decisions of the dioceses are not subject to government control.
“Our fear is that if this extradition law goes into effect, this could destroy the possibility of priests in Hong Kong, faithful in Hong Kong, who can help the Church in China. Because in this way, the help brought by the Catholics in Hong Kong to China could be considered as a criminal case.”
Cardinal Tong invited Catholics in Hong Kong to take part in a Eucharistic celebration for the well-being of the territory on Friday, August 23 at St. Francis of Assisi Church.
There are some 581,000 Catholics in Hong Kong, or about 8% of the population.
Hongkongers currently have significantly more freedoms than Chinese living on the mainland, including access to uncensored internet. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, and it was returned to China under a “one country, two systems” principle, allowing it its own legislature and economic system.
The Church in mainland China has been divided for some 60 years between the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities, and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a government-sanctioned organization.