Missionary zeal in HK fight for equality

Missionary zeal in HK fight for equality
At the "St Francis Chapel in the Street", young Christians discuss the scriptures' relevance to the protests.

As tourists make their pilgrimage to the jewellery shops in Mong Kok's Nathan Road and protesters with loudhailers declaim the virtues of "genuine democracy" to their congregations, a third kind of worship is taking place.

In the middle of a road that pro-democracy protesters have occupied for the past six weeks, a makeshift shrine built from wooden crates houses a statue of Guan Yu, a warrior deified for his righteousness, loyalty and courage.

Business development manager Kiki Leung, 38, lights the three customary sticks of incense and bows. She is agnostic but wants to pay her respects as the deity is a "protector of people". "His values like righteousness are also what we hope to see in our government," she adds.

Nearby, a wooden cross depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ stands on an altar. An open Bible is placed before it. Above, a banner says: "Christians unite, fight for genuine universal suffrage."

At what is called the "St Francis Chapel in the Street" but more informally nicknamed "Jesus Temple", young Christians sit on the tarmac to discuss the scriptures and its relevance to the protest. They hail from different churches but meet every Tuesday and Thursday night for a common cause.

Says Mr Wong King Yip, 32, a Christian organisation worker who helps to lead the sessions: "Jesus taught us about justice. And this is about fighting injustice."

The ongoing protest movement thus sees the intersection of two things Beijing is long suspicious of - democratic activism and religion.

Hong Kong is not a particularly religious society: Just about half of its 7.2 million people profess to have a faith, compared to 83 per cent of Singaporeans.

Catholics numbering 360,000 and 480,000 Protestants together comprise the third-largest group of believers behind Buddhists and Taoists, each at over one million.

But their voices are generally louder in the public space due to a tradition of political activism.

In particular, the Catholic Church - under its former head Joseph Zen, a long-time democracy and human rights advocate - used the pulpit to galvanise followers to vote during elections and even took the government to court over education reforms.

Today, some churches have expressed their sympathy with the protesters demanding greater democracy.

Key protest figures such as Occupy Central organisers Benny Tai and Chu Yiu Ming, as well as Scholarism leader Joshua Wong, are Christian. Democracy activist Martin Lee and Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai are Catholic.

For many, one key driving force is the Bible's teachings of equal rights and social justice.

Says Reverend Yuen Tin Yau, head of the Methodist Church: "We support democracy because the Bible says God gives everyone equal rights. But in Hong Kong, without democracy, the rich control the society and one result is the rich-poor gap."

The church lends its premises in Wan Chai to the Occupy Central organisers for press conferences.

On Sept 28, when the police unleashed tear gas on protesters, it opened its doors to those seeking refuge. More than 1,000 turned up over two days.

Rev Yuen says Beijing's decision on Hong Kong's constitutional reform was "unfair as it is different from genuine universal suffrage and what the people want". "Under such circumstances, people can say no to the authorities."

The same values propel 17-year-old protest leader Joshua Wong, who told Public Radio International: "I believe everyone's born equal. And they're loved by Jesus. Everyone therefore should get equal rights in the political system."

While the Catholic Church under Bishop John Tong put out a relatively neutral statement urging the authorities to show "restraint in deployment of force" and protesters to remain "calm", Cardinal Zen was at the protest in its early days, giving speeches and conducting mass.

The 82-year-old raises another reason in wanting democracy as a form of check and balance: to pre-empt potential religious persecution. He acknowledges there has been no evidence of persecution since the 1997 handover - Hong Kong's religious freedoms are guaranteed under the Basic Law while the Falungong group, banned as a "cult" on the mainland, freely continues its activities here.

However, he warns that legislation such as Article 23, an anti-subversion law which Beijing has long wanted to implement in the city, could imperil religious freedoms, saying: "Anything defined as a threat to national security in China can be dealt with in the same way in Hong Kong, including the Church."

This is not to say that all those of the Christian faith are supporting the pro-democracy movement.

Most, especially those in evangelical churches, remain politically conservative, notes Professor Ying Fuk Tsang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's divinity school.

One reason is that some religious leaders have been co-opted, he says.

For instance, Archbishop of the Anglican Church Paul Kwong, who made headlines for saying pro-democracy activists should remain silent "as Jesus remained silent in the face of Pilate", is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top advisory body.

Two, in the marketplace of faith, mainland China is not to be sniffed at. "If the churches are too openly confrontational, it could hurt relations on both their tracks - building ties with official as well as underground house churches," says Prof Ying.

This comes against the backdrop of heavy-handed actions by the Chinese Communist Party, long suspicious of religions cultivating alternative power bases.

In particular, the Christian faith is viewed as a possible Trojan horse through which Western influences could infiltrate.

This year alone, the authorities have removed crosses from over 230 churches in Wenzhou which they deemed illegal structures.

Meanwhile, diplomatic ties with the Vatican remain on ice, although talks on the state of their relations are under way, says Cardinal Zen.

That there is some mixing of politics and religion in Hong Kong is thus a double red flag for Beijing.

Its mouthpiece in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po newspaper, had previously claimed Mr Joshua Wong was being groomed as a "political superstar" by the United States, citing as "evidence" his Christian faith.

But the repercussions of speaking out could be more nuanced, depending also on whether the pragmatic authorities need the help of Christian groups, says Rev Yuen.

"For example, after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, a Christian group went to the disaster zone to provide aid. The government not only let it in but also offered the office for free.

"But last year, it jacked up the rent. It is their way of driving us away when they don't need us any more."

Unlike in Singapore, there is less sensitivity here about religions playing an active role in politics or in the public space.

This, says Prof Chan Shun Hing of Hong Kong Baptist University's department of religion, is because there is no history of religious conflicts here. The local population is also largely Chinese, meaning there are fewer fault lines along ethnicity and religious beliefs.

That said, Taoist Association chairman Leung Tak Wah, while careful not to criticise other religions, notes that different faiths have different views, and one way to avoid conflict is to "proceed in a peaceful and legal way".

The perception is that the more traditional Chinese religions today, such as Buddhism and Taoism, tend to be more pro-establishment.

This is due to historical reasons, says Prof Chan. Under British rule, Christianity was favoured, with churches allowed to run schools and welfare groups.

Mr Leung acknowledges this, saying "we have more hope now of developing Taoism because we are all Chinese and we share the same culture".

"But this does not mean we just support the government's decisions, ignoring what's right and wrong," he adds. "A core value of Taoism is tolerance. We advocate listening to different opinions first to understand the issue rather than rushing to the fore."

xueying@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Pearl Liu


This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
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