This week Hong Kong marked 100 days since the passing of the national security law on June 30. In the second of a series, Danny Mok looks at the impact of the Beijing-imposed legislation on churches and their congregations. You can read part one here.
Reverend Jayson Tam was upset when a remark he made about mainland China in an online sermon in early June drew a four-page letter of complaint.
He had mentioned the mainland policy that banned children under 18 from going to church, but the complainant said it was not fair to single out the mainland when the United States also had rules regarding religious activities in public schools.
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Tam took to Facebook to express astonishment at the complaint, saying he feared that worship gatherings were being monitored by mainland authorities.
The 46-year-old pastor from a 10,000-strong megachurch deleted his post shortly after Beijing introduced a tailor-made national security law for Hong Kong, afraid that he and others drawn into the discussion might have breached the sweeping legislation that came into force on June 30.
He was among a number of clerics from the more than 70 Protestant denominations and about 400 independent churches in the city who told the Post they were worried the new law would affect what they said from the pulpit or in messages to their flocks. The churches have a total of about 800,000 members.
Some church leaders have taken to removing records of their messages. Others said they had begun taking more care over their sermons, for fear of running foul of the law.
“I’m absolutely worried about it, so I immediately read through the law after it was passed to know if there was any chance my sermons might cross the line,” Tam said.
Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the city was required to enact its own national security law. However, in 2003, the Hong Kong government was forced to shelve a national security bill after an estimated half a million people took to the streets to oppose the legislation.
There was renewed pressure to introduce the law last year, after months of anti-government protests sparked by an extradition bill that might have resulted in fugitives being sent to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong had no exchange arrangement.
Although the bill was withdrawn, protests continued through the second half of last year and were virulently anti-Beijing, with numerous acts of vandalism and increasingly violent clashes between radicals and police.
With Hong Kong authorities unable to bring the protests to an end, Beijing ran out of patience, bypassed the need for the city to enact its own legislation and, on June 30, imposed a law banning acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with external forces.
The law has been attacked by the United States, among other countries, and criticised for lacking clarity and therefore casting a chilling effect on all spheres of society, including the sacred.
“Of course I won’t cross the line in areas such as secession,” Tam said. “But the part on provoking public hatred towards the authorities could be subjective.”
He was referring to Article 29 of the law, which states that it is an offence to provoke by unlawful means hatred of the central government or the Hong Kong government among residents.
He added that the ban on collusion was also worrying because local Christian denominations had strong links with their counterparts in Europe and the US.
Tam has decided to leave Hong Kong. He bade farewell to his congregation at the end of September and will be emigrating to Canada with his wife on Saturday, who preached at the same church, and their nine-year-old son.
He said their move was planned last year, but the national security law confirmed for him that it was the right decision.
“Previously, the knife was not in place and the churches didn’t need to worry. Now the knife is ready, it’s just a matter of whether it will be used or not,” he said.
Anxious pastors take precautions
Religious organisations have largely stayed away from politics in Hong Kong until recent years, with some Christian groups and individuals taking part in the 2014 Occupy movement, which shut down parts of the city for 79 days.
While the protests mainly involved students and young people, at least two Occupy leaders were devout Christians – legal scholar and activist Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming from Chai Wan Baptist Church.
Major churches were careful to avoid being drawn into last year’s anti-government protests, but clerics and members of many religious groups took part in the movement. Clerics were seen mediating between masked radicals and police at the protest front lines, and some churches opened their premises to give demonstrators a resting place.
Among those affected by the new law is the outspoken Reverend Lo Hing-choi, 68, recently re-elected president of the 80,000-strong Baptist Convention.
In an online message in late June, he said the law should not be enacted because it violated the right to freedom of expression. A day later, he removed it.
He said he decided to remove all his messages hours before the law came into effect on June 30 because he did not want his opinion to be the cause of potential trouble for the Baptist church.
He said he intended to keep a low profile for now. “I will not write any messages as the president in the near future,” he said.
He added, however, that if it was necessary for him to state his religious view regarding events in society, he would still do so.
Two pastors who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were concerned about the new law.
Pastor Yau*, from a church in Tuen Mun, said he removed pictures of President Xi Jinping, his US counterpart Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he intended to include with a sermon themed on worldly powers in late July.
I will not mention politics any more, because I don’t know if people may infiltrate our church
The 36-year-old said he wanted to avoid unnecessary anxiety and debate among his congregation. He was also concerned about Article 9 of the law, which states that the government should take necessary measures to strengthen supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to social organisations and other groups.
He felt “social organisations” could include religious groups and the authorities would act against churches.
Pastor Kong*, 39, from a Protestant church in Kwai Tsing district, said he stopped mentioning politics in sermons to his 170-strong congregation after the arrival of the new law.
“I will not mention politics any more, because I don’t know if people may infiltrate our church and make recordings to use as evidence to charge me over what I say,” he said.
After the new law was introduced, his church decided as a precaution to remove online audio files of sermons after three months instead of making them available for two years.
“My worries are not unreasonable,” he said, citing the brief detention of a Hong Kong church leader on the mainland two years ago, after the man stated his views on Beijing’s policy towards religions during an internal meeting of key members of a group from his church.
At least two preachers, Reverend Wong Siu-yung and Reverend William Yeung Kin-keung, have left Hong Kong. Their churches would only confirm to the Post that the two men had resigned recently.
They initiated “The Hong Kong 2020 Gospel Declaration” in May together with other clergymen from the Hong Kong Pastors Network, a group formed during last year’s protests.
The six-point declaration reaffirmed Christians’ allegiance to Jesus Christ and the churches’ fearlessness in upholding the truth and rejecting evil. One point states: “In the face of a totalitarian regime that distorts facts, controls the media and buries the truth, the church courageously rejects all falsehood, and points out what the regime has done wrong.”
Wong and Yeung were among several outspoken clerics targeted in July by two pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong, which described the declaration as an attempt to encourage secession and subversion.
This was after the network posted a four-minute video clip based on the declaration, with footage that showed the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” twice. The popular slogan from last year’s social unrest is now deemed by officials to violate the national security law.
Reverend Chan Yan-ming, who was among those who signed the declaration and was named by the two newspapers, confirmed that Wong and Yeung had left Hong Kong.
Tensions within major church groups
The new law has led to strained relations within some religious groups, including the Methodist Church, a major Protestant denomination.
On May 30, more than 40 clerics and lay persons from Methodist member churches issued a joint statement and appealed for signatures to protest against the law. But on June 5, Methodist Church president Reverend Lam Sung-che declared that the statement did not reflect the church’s position.
The same day, the influential Hong Kong Christian Council, whose members include the Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran churches, released a statement saying the law should not affect all the freedoms the city enjoyed, and enforcement should be conducted openly in accordance with Hong Kong laws.
Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church criticised the council for ignoring that the law would erode Hong Kong’s legislative power and rule of law, and urged their church leaders to speak up.
Cardinal John Tong Hon, leader of the 400,000-strong Catholic community, struck a more positive note in June when he said the law was understandable and would have no effect on religious freedom.
But later that month, the Catholic diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission dropped a plan for a crowdfunding campaign to pay for an advertisement in a local newspaper carrying a prayer for Hong Kong’s democratic development in light of the law.
The commission said the church leadership disagreed with both the fundraising method and the content of the prayer.
The Anglican church’s provincial secretary general, Reverend Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, said all countries needed national security laws and he saw no cause for alarm or anxiety among the clergy.
“I don’t think we need to be more careful [about sermons], many people may just be scaremongering,” he said. “A sermon is meant to encourage people in good or bad times … there is no reason to spread hatred or ideas of secession, which is not what a church should do.”
He said he could not see why the law would restrict the development of churches or affect religious freedom.
I don’t think we need to be more careful [about sermons], many people may just be scaremongering
Reverend Canon Peter Koon, Anglican church
The church leadership’s supportive position prompted more than 100 Anglicans to issue a statement as a protest in June.
Reverend Lo Lung-kwong, 69, ex-president of the Methodist Church and former secretary general of the Hong Kong Christian Council, said he could not see how a sermon might touch on issues related to the law and that preachers should not rein in their words.
“As someone delivering God’s word, the first question to ask is whether what I say is in accordance with the Bible and our faith, not whether this is something I can say or not,” he said.
“Self-censorship and self-limiting are the most frightful things today and also what the authorities most want you to do.”
* Names changed at interviewees’ request
More from South China Morning Post:
- National security law: Hong Kong residents, protesters flock to Taiwan, but is it the right destination?
- Hong Kong magistrate accused of protest bias cleared after facing multiple complaints, as judiciary says it will publish lower court decision summaries online
- Hong Kong protests: first demonstrator shot by police with live round during last year’s unrest may plead guilty to rioting
- Prestigious photo exhibition featuring media images of Hong Kong protests shuts down in Macau
- Hong Kong’s national security law, 100 days on