Hong Kong’s new bishop faces a delicate balance

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Bishop Stephen Chow may well combine the right mix of pastoral skills, wisdom and spirituality

As the new Bishop of Hong Kong, Stephen Chow Sau-yan, is consecrated and installed today during a mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception celebrated by the Apostolic Administrator Cardinal John Tong Hon, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, he takes office at a critical time for his flock and the city.

The freedoms and autonomy promised in Hong Kong under an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and guaranteed under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, have been rapidly dismantled in recent years.

In the past 18 months, remaining civil liberties and human rights have been ripped apart and trampled under the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian national security law, imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong.

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Thousands of Hong Kong people are leaving the city, while hundreds are in prison, including prominent secular Catholics such as pro-democracy entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, whose popular Apple Daily newspaper was forced to close in June. The father of the democracy movement, 83-year-old lawyer Martin Lee Chu-ming, a devout Catholic, is serving a suspended prison sentence. Christians of other traditions, including Protestants Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Joshua Wong Chi-fung, are also among the peaceful activists behind bars for defending human rights.

Press freedom is in tatters, academic freedom is undermined, and the school curriculum has been adapted into a propaganda system to brainwash future generations in Hong Kong in the manner of Xi Jinping’s thought and ideology. of the Chinese Communist Party.

There are signs that religious freedom is already under threat, with warnings to the clergy to be careful in preaching. Police raided at least one Protestant church, the Good Neighbor North District Church, which aided protesters in 2019, and HSBC froze its bank accounts and those of its pastor, Roy Chan, now in exile.

On top of that, he has the headache of a Vatican that seems too quick to bow down to Beijing and too reluctant to speak out for those the regime persecutes.

Other Christians in Hong Kong are warning of the worst to come. Day after day, Hong Kong is moving from one of the freest and most open cities in Asia to a simple Chinese city under the total control of the brutal Beijing regime.

This scenario is a challenge for anyone in public office. But add to the list of challenges the need to care for a divided flock, to defend religious freedom and human dignity – two values ​​at the heart of Catholic social teaching – and to manage relations with a regime of one. a way that both protects the Church and does not. no compromise on truth and justice, and the new bishop of Hong Kong has his work cut out for him.

On top of that, he has the headache of a Vatican that seems too quick to bow down to Beijing and too reluctant to speak out for those the regime persecutes, be they Christians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners. or Hong Kong.

Three years ago, the Vatican signed an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party regime that gives Beijing a say in the appointment of Catholic bishops in mainland China. This resulted in the arrest or forced retirement of underground bishops who courageously remained loyal to Rome for decades.

The deal – details of which are kept under wraps – was renewed without public scrutiny or transparency last year. Presumably signed by the Vatican in the hope that it would improve religious freedom, it had the opposite consequence. The religious persecution in China has only worsened.

Choosing a new bishop to lead the Church in Hong Kong has not been an easy task for Pope Francis in this context, after the death of Bishop Chow’s predecessor, Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, there are almost three years. Leaving a seat empty for such a long time is unusual, and a sign of difficulty in discerning the right candidate.

It had to be someone who could reassure the Catholics of Hong Kong, moral leadership to the city, a prophetic voice for justice and peace, without upsetting Beijing. He couldn’t be someone seen by pro-democracy Catholics as a bradder of the regime, but neither was it realistic to expect him to be a wild activist. Someone who combines truth and wisdom, conviction and diplomacy, courage and healing.

Bishop Chow’s remarks for religious freedom and plurality, and his prayers expressed for the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, reassure his conscience

As I wrote in the deceased Apple Daily when his appointment was announced, “it looks like Rome may have found the right man in Bishop-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan.” This is just the start, but based on his media performance, background, and comments from those who know him, he may well combine the right mix of pastoral skills, wisdom and spirituality. A respected educator, Bishop Chow is known “neither as pro-Beijing nor as being at the forefront of the movement for democracy. And that can be a good thing.

Bishop Chow’s remarks for religious freedom and plurality, shortly after his appointment was announced in May, and his expressed prayers for the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, reassure his conscience. His educational background can equip him to defend academic freedom, and as a Jesuit he can have Pope Francis’ ear. His insistence on the search for unity and not uniformity – “unity in plurality” as he put it – bodes well. As a shepherd, his task is to defend his sheep without unnecessarily provoking the wolves.

It remains to be seen how well he is able to tackle the challenges he faces. But Bishop Chow deserves our prayers and support. It is encouraging that the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), a society of priests and lay people, is planning a “Big Prayer” campaign today in his seminary in Italy while Bishop Chow is consecrated. It is inspiring that the concelebration of Mass for the new Jesuit bishop is a Fransiscan bishop, a Salesian cardinal and a diocesan cardinal, invoking the various charisms of the Catholic Church.

As I watch the livestream in the cathedral where – in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong – I joined mass most Sundays online from London throughout the pandemic, I too will pray, for a light in darkness for Hong Kong and for the strength of the city’s new shepherd.

* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is co-founder and managing director of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, co-founder and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission man of the British Conservative Party, member of the Consultative Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and member of the board of directors of the Stop Uyghur Genocide campaign. He is the author of six books, and his journey of faith is recounted in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey in the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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