CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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How full is full religious freedom?

HONG KONG (SE): In the clash of heads over the inclusion by chief executive hopeful, Carrie Lam Chen Yuet-ngor, of a suggestion to set up a government Religious Affairs Unit in Hong Kong (see page 1), the phrase, “Hong Kong already enjoys full religious freedom” is being tossed about with gay abandon.

While it is a guarantee of the Basic Law, the definition of religious freedom seems to be at least up for grabs, as it is not necessarily clear who has the right to define or describe it.

As has been demonstrated by several disagreements between the Church and the government over the years, exactly how full full religious freedom is should at least be questioned.

While simplistically it can be looked at as freedom of worship, full religious freedom is a far more nuanced and complex issue embracing the ethos of education, social service and the existence of a religious organisation as a corporate citizen in the special administrative region.

The clash over what religious freedom implies is not new. In the early 1990s, the normally hesitant Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference (Taiwan) spoke out surprisingly vehemently over attempts by the government to squash Church apostolates among factory workers in its burgeoning industrial cities.

The bishops insisted that it is the prerogative of the Church to define what is embraced by evangelisation and not something for the government to decide.

Even before the return of Hong Kong in 1997 to Chinese sovereignty, religious freedom had proven to be a testy issue. In the drafting of the Basic Law, Chapter VI on Education, Science, Culture, Sports, Religion, Labour and Social Services included a clause on a religious policy.

Although opposition from the religious sector saw it dropped from the final version, it proved to be far from the end of the debate.

In an article entitled, A 10-year review of the relationship between the Church and the state in Hong Kong, published in the winter issue of Tripod in 2007, Anthony Lam Sui-ki lists 10 significant clashes between Church and state.

The 1999 Right of Abode issue saw the Catholic Church challenging the government on the exclusion of mainland-born children from education and two of its schools began accepting them into their classrooms.

During the debate, which resulted in the government making exceptions, a People’s Daily affiliated website,, began a critical attack on then auxiliary Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, accusing him of promoting civil unrest.

Religious freedom again became an issue in 2000 with the canonisation of the 120 Chinese Martyrs.

The diocese, as well as other Chinese Catholic groups throughout the world, was told to keep celebrations low key, but a lively debate erupted in the media over the implications of the One Country, Two Systems principle and religious freedom.

There were further clashes over the ill-fated National Security Bill in 2003, but by far the most significant was the passing of the Education Amendment Ordinance (2004) in the Legislative Council (LegCo).

The diocese held prayer rallies outside the LegCo when significant votes were being taken on the amendment and eventually filed for a judicial review against the compulsory setting up of Incorporated Management Committees in each of its 200 or so schools.

The saga stretched until 2011, when the Court of Final Appeal ruled against the diocese, which had argued that the structure of the management committees opened the way for people who do not share the vision of Catholic education to have an undue influence on a school’s ethos.

The diocese argued that although the sponsoring bodies maintained the right to submit a vision and mission guideline on the ethos of a school, once written it becomes a dead letter, as the management committee retains the possibility of having it altered.

Hence the diocese maintained that this was contrary to the provision of the Basic Law that religions would remain free to operate as before the handover.

While the Court of Final Appeal acknowledged the validity of the phrase “according to previous practice,” its interpretation confined the meaning of the religious dimension of education to activities like morning prayer and religious instruction.

But Catholic education is not just about periods of prayer and instruction on the precepts of the faith. The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education defines a school as “a place of integral formation by means of a systematic and critical assimilation of culture.”

It also stresses that it is ultimately what kind of person students become that is the subject of education, not just what they know.

An ideologically-neutral curriculum is at least a politicisation of education and a covert ideology is a manipulation, but the ideology of Catholic education is overtly to guide students towards knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and to model their lives on his teaching.

This implies that a Catholic school has a specific ethos, a mission vision and worldview, which must remain the context within which all subjects are taught, from mathematics to liberal studies, economics and physics, as in fact, no subject can be ideologically-neutral and nor is the ideology of Catholic education covert.

Religious education is not confined to saying prayers and instruction in faith, as suggested by the Court of Final Appeal and, since this at least threatens the ability of a school to maintain its Catholic ethos, it also questions the extent of freedom of religion in this special administrative region of China.

At the conclusion of the appeal, the former bishop of Hong Kong and then-member of the diocesan Education Commission, Cardinal Zen, wrote in a lengthy article published in the Sunday Examiner on 30 October 2011, “The Incorporated Management Committee system is meant to increase the dictatorial power of the government.”

Freedom is not something to be presumed, as it can be eroded even by seemingly innocent things.


This should be taken as at least a caution and phrases like “full religious freedom” should not be tossed around recklessly.

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