Catholic priests in Hong Kong have been asked to avoid "instigating hatred and social disorder" by their bishop, as the local Catholic diocese appeared to signal it wouldn't oppose a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing.
A letter issued to priests by Cardinal John Tong Hon, the current administrator of the Hong Kong diocese, said priests should not use sermons to "convey the preacher’s personal views (such as his own view on a social or political issue) but God’s message," the Catholic newspaper The Tablet reported.
"In a critical time like today, our faithful are hoping to hear something comforting, constructive and encouraging from the preachers during the liturgy," the paper quoted the letter as saying.
The letter came after a group of Hong Kong Catholics dropped a planned fundraising campaign to buy advertising space to print a prayer for democracy in a local newspaper, after pressure from church leaders.
Catholic Benedict Rogers, a human rights activist with the U.K.'s ruling Conservative Party and the founder of the rights group Hong Kong Watch, hit out at the Catholic Church's response to an ongoing crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
"While many Catholics, and Christians of other traditions, have played leading roles in Hong Kong’s movement for democracy, it is by now clear that the hierarchy in Hong Kong has kowtowed to the Chinese Communist Party," Rogers wrote in an op-ed for the Hong Kong-based Catholic UCA News website.
"There is a shocking divide between those who would kneel and bow in prayer to God before fighting for justice, freedom and human dignity, and those who instead kneel and bow to Beijing," the article said.
Church in Hong Kong divided
The national security legislation, which was imposed by Beijing on the city without recourse to its Legislative Council (LegCo), has divided the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, The Tablet reported.
While some figures like Cardinal Joseph Zen have spoken out against the law, which criminalizes speech and peaceful dissent, and said they are willing to risk arrest and prison, the diocese, which ministers to more than 500,000 Hong Kong Catholics, appears anxious to avoid offending Beijing, and has urged its schools to embrace China's insistence on "patriotic education."
Ying Fuk-tsang, director of Christian Study Center on Chinese Religion & Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the new law has sparked a culture of fear and denunciation in Hong Kong.
"Now it's all about intimidation, or maybe naming or criticizing to make you feel that you should be afraid," Ying told RFA.
"In the past, naming names wouldn't have mattered, because the national security law didn't exist," he said. "But now, it's pretty easy to accuse someone of breaching the law, and that's a pretty serious accusation."
Protestant pastor Yuen Tin-Yau, former chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council, said he isn't optimistic about the future of religious freedom in Hong Kong.
"The Chinese Communist regime in mainland China doesn't have religious beliefs; totalitarian regimes usually don't," Yuen said. "There will be no problem as long as you don't oppose them, but if you criticize them, I don't think they will accept that.
"I don't know how things will turn out in the future," he said, and urged caution, to avoid provoking the authorities.
"I think that if you have something to say, you should of course say it; there is no need to avoid that," Yuen said. "But you should be very careful what you say."
The Protestant Hong Kong Pastors' Network has been outspoken in its opposition to the national security law, and has already been accused of "secession and subversion of state power" by Beijing-backed newspapers the Wen Wei Po and the Ta Kung Pao, and at least two of their members have now reportedly fled the city.
Article 32 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states that Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of conscience, as well as freedom of religious belief and freedom to preach and to conduct and participate in religious activities in public.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.