Freedom of speech, assembly and the press are gone in Hong Kong, and there’s good reason to fear religious liberty will be the next target.
That was the warning from Monsignor Javier Herrera-Corona, the Vatican’s unofficial envoy in Hong Kong, as he prepared to leave the city this spring after six years. Reuters reports that in four private meetings he encouraged some 50 Catholic missions in the city to safeguard their property, files and funds in anticipation of more mainland Chinese control.
“Change is coming, and you’d better be prepared,” Monsignor Herrera-Corona warned the missionaries, according to Reuters, which quoted an attendee as summarizing the monsignor’s message: “Hong Kong is not the great Catholic beachhead it was.”
Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantees freedom of religion, and diverse faiths have flourished there. The city has also long been a haven for mainland Christians, who traveled to Hong Kong to study. Father Laszlo Ladany, a Hungarian Jesuit based in Hong Kong, famously reported on Chinese political and legal developments during the Mao Zedong era.
Yet China has violated other liberties it swore to respect under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and there’s no reason to believe religious freedom will be an exception.
The Communist Party has installed Xia Baolong —who presided over a crackdown on Catholic and Protestant churches in Zhejiang Province—as the head of its Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. In May Hong Kong authorities arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen under the new national security law. His supposed crime is that he was a trustee for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which supported participants of the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has tightened control over religion in China to a degree not seen since Mao. The U.S. has declared China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims a genocide, and its oppression of Falun Gong practitioners is longstanding. Beijing claims authority to appoint priests and pastors and dictate sermons. It has arrested mainland Catholic clergy and Protestant pastors, razed churches and confiscated religious texts.
Monsignor Herrera-Corona’s warning underscores the folly of the Vatican’s 2018 attempt to appease Beijing by allowing Communist Party discretion over the appointment of Catholic bishops. Cardinal Zen said the secret pact was “selling out the Catholic Church in China,” which is probably the real reason for his arrest. The crackdown on believers has proceeded despite Rome’s concessions, and the deal with Beijing will tarnish Pope Francis’s record as head of the Church.
Beijing reserves special animus for mainland churches that welcome foreign missionaries or maintain ties with believers abroad. Hong Kong’s national security law prohibits “collusion" with vaguely defined foreign forces or external elements. Don’t be surprised if the Communist Party uses this provision against believers. Under the national security law, the maximum sentence is life in prison.