In Hong Kong’s Kowloon area, the Roman Catholic Church operates an unofficial diplomatic mission. It is the only political presence the Vatican has in any part of China.
The two religious leaders who work at the mission have no official position with China or the Hong Kong government. And they do not carry out official work, not even meeting with Hong Kong officials.
All of these are signs of the uneasy position the Catholic Church in China finds itself in.
Many Catholics in Hong Kong strongly support the city’s democratic movement.
Now the mission in Kowloon is getting growing pressure from the Chinese government. So is the Catholic Church in Hong Kong as a whole. The Chinese government has been attempting to quiet opposition voices in the city under a new national security law.
In May, two Chinese nuns who work at the mission were arrested by mainland officials during a visit to Hebei state. That information comes from three Catholic clergy with knowledge of the matter.
The nuns were detained for three weeks before being released into house arrest without charges. But they are not permitted to leave the mainland, one clergy member said. Western diplomats say Chinese security agents have been watching the Catholic mission more closely in recent months.
Catholic religious leaders in Hong Kong and the Vatican see the arrests as a sign that Beijing wants to close the mission. It lacks official standing because the Holy See and China have not had official diplomatic ties. The Holy See is the universal government of the Catholic Church, which operates from the Vatican inside Rome, Italy.
Priests are sometimes arrested in mainland China. But “it is highly unusual for nuns to be detained,” said one clergy member who has long-time contacts on the mainland.
Pressure from China is also being felt by the leaders of Hong Kong’s local Catholic community, called a diocese.
Church officials in Hong Kong told Reuters news agency that China is trying to spread its control to the diocese. The Chinese government is doing this in part by influencing the choice of Hong Kong’s next bishop. The position has been open since the last bishop’s death two years ago.
China, they said, wants to start using in Hong Kong a two-year-old agreement the Chinese government made with the Holy See. The agreement permits Chinese officials to influence the choices of Catholic leaders on the mainland.
Vatican officials say Hong Kong was not part of the deal because the city operates as a semi-independent state. But China has been pushing for greater control over Hong Kong. And mainland priests are telling priests in Hong Kong who the Communist Party wants for the bishop position, the clergy members said.
Attempts to quiet activism
As pressure rises, the acting leader of the local Church, Cardinal John Tong, has made attempts to quiet activism. That information comes from four people with knowledge of the matter.
One target of this quieting has been the Justice and Peace Commission. It is a human rights body within the diocese that has supported political and religious freedom.
In October, the four people said, Tong’s committee of leaders censored a statement from the rights group on relations between China and the Holy See. The leaders removed information about James Su Zhimin. He was the Bishop of Baoding and was arrested by Chinese officials on the mainland more than 20 years ago. Su has not been seen or heard from since and has become a hero to many in the Church.
Born in Hong Kong, 81-year-old Tong warned his priests to avoid language in their religious speeches that causes “social disorder.”
“We are at the bottom of the pit. There is no freedom of expression anymore,” Cardinal Joseph Zen told Reuters in a written reply to questions. Zen served as the sixth Bishop of Hong Kong.
Cardinal Zen, who is 88, was the only person who agreed to be named in the story. All other leaders and members asked not to. “For any word you say,” Zen told Reuters, the government “can say you’re offending the National Security Law.”
Pressure on the Catholic Church is building as China feeds a larger effort to crush independent political forces in Hong Kong. That push began early this year, after months of sometimes violent mass protests there. It intensified on June 30, when China announced the new national security law. The law makes many forms of free speech and activism illegal. Charges are punishable by up to life in prison.
Since then, top pro-democracy activists have been arrested. Democratic lawmakers have been removed from their positions. Others have left their positions in protest.
The Catholic Church is the latest major organization in Hong Kong to feel pressure from the Chinese government. For the Communist Party, Hong Kong’s Catholics present a serious challenge to its power.
On the mainland, a government religious bureaucracy and years of repression have contained religious practice and the power of the Vatican. That has pushed large parts of the Church underground. But in Hong Kong, it has largely operated openly.
In late August, Tong issued a letter to clergy members urging them to avoid politically loaded sermons.
Last year, Tong did ask the city government to listen to the people of Hong Kong. But he is known for avoiding conflicts with China. Cardinal Zen, however, has long spoken freely about his support for democracy and civil rights.
Some of Tong’s critics say he gives in too easily to Chinese government pressure. But his defenders say he is just trying to “keep the wolf from the door,” one priest said.
“The Hong Kong church has been so strong for us over the years, but now it seems so weak,” said one Church member visiting the city’s Eastern District. “There is too much secrecy.”
The Hong Kong mission’s two Chinese nuns find themselves caught between China and the Holy See. After their three-week detention, they spent months under house arrest. And their families’ homes were under close watch. The restrictions were eased in November. The nuns are free to attend religious services in nearby churches but cannot leave the mainland or return to Hong Kong.
A Vatican official in Rome said the arrests appeared to be an attempt by China to show its dislike for the Hong Kong mission’s presence.
Cardinal Zen says efforts by the government to silence the Church in Hong Kong are unstoppable. “So please pray for us,” he wrote in a statement.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
Words in This Story
mission – n. a group of people sent to an area for a specific reason (such as to have discussions or to provide training or assistance)
nun – n. a woman who is a member of a religious community and who usually promises to separate from the rest of society in order to serve God
clergy – n. people (such as priests) who are the leaders of a religion and who perform religious services
priest – n. a person who has the authority to lead or perform ceremonies in some religions and especially in some Christian religions
bishop – n. an official in some Christian religions who is ranked higher than a priest and who is usually in charge of church matters in a specific geographical area
censor – n. to examine letters, books, movies and other things in order to remove things that are considered offensive or harmful to society
pit – n. a hole in the ground usually made by digging
bureaucracy – n. a system of government or business that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things
sermon – n. a speech about a moral or religious subject that is usually given by a religious leader
wolf – n. a large wild animal that is similar to a dog and that often hunts in groups