CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Carrie on Religion

HONG KONG (SE): A few alarm bells rang on February 27 at the release of the election manifesto of chief executive hopeful, Carrie Lam Chen Yuet-ngor, as it included the possibility of revisiting the setting up of a special government unit in Hong Kong to coordinate the activities of religious bodies.

Buried within her 47-page document was the unique suggestion to examine the possibility of instituting a Religious Affairs Unit under the wing of the Home Affairs Bureau to coordinate religious policies and activities.

Of the three candidates left in the race, Lam is the only one to have come up with such a suggestion, prompting much wonder as to why a practicing Catholic would invite government interference into the internal coordination of religious bodies.

While it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that religious bodies act within and keep the laws of the state, it is not anticipated that the state would take an active role in coordinating their activities or interfering with internal governance, unless such practices contravene the laws of the state.

While Lam has since said that she will withdraw the proposal, it provoked a strong reaction from Christian groups across the city.

EJ Insight, an English language service of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, quoted Reverend Yuen Tin-yau, from the Hong Kong Christian Council, as saying that the central government had proposed the inclusion of a religious policy in the draft of the Basic Law, but it was dropped from the final version due to massive opposition from the religious sector.

He questioned why Lam wanted to bring the controversial topic back, as he believes that it would only damage the uniqueness of Hong Kong, particularly its religious freedom.

He added that he believes that the government simply has no role to play in the religious development of Hong Kong.

UCAN reported Ying Fuk-tsang, from the Divinity School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as questioning if this would mean a rehash of the State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing.

“Once the government introduces the concept of religious affairs, setting up the unit with the so-called religious policy, Hong Kong will be on convergence with China,” Ying wrote on his Facebook on the same day Lam released her manifesto.

Lam mentioned three points on her suggestion for a possible religious policy, which stated that she was proposing an undertaking to study the possibility of establishing a Religious Affairs Unit.

However, while alarm bells rang at the suggestion, Lam sees it in a positive light, describing it as a review of the current policy on land premium for sites used by religious bodies in order to support the development of religion.

She then stressed that religion leads people towards kindness, benevolence, peace and tolerance, adding it does indeed play a very important role in society all over the world.

EJ Insight commented on March 1 that given Lam’s track record it is not surprising that the body of the 580 endorsements she has received from the 1,194-strong Election Committee came from the pro-Beijing camp.

Representatives in the agricultural and fisheries sectors, the Heung Yee Kuk and New Territories District Council, the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress all pitched their weight behind Lam.

EJ Insight comments that all “reportedly had been told by the national government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong to back the former chief secretary.”

UCAN reported Leo Ip Hing-cheung, a Catholic representative on the Election Committee, as saying that when a group of seven of them met with Lam on February 11, she did not mention anything about a policy on religions.

“We just learned about it from her manifesto. We, an (informal) group of seven to eight Catholic electors, have to call a meeting for further discussion,” Ip said.

UCAN quoted the secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission, Lina Chan Lai-nga, as saying that Lam’s purpose is unclear.

“We feel worried, as Lam does not explain clearly or elaborate on her religious policy. We see the Regulations on Religious Affairs in mainland China and it is not just about religious management, but also about national security and stability of the state,” Chan commented.

Hong Kong already has laws and regulations covering the religious sector as civil organisations, like the Societies Ordinance, prompting Chan to doubt the need for a specific policy to manage religions.

Nine Protestant members of the committee, none of whom nominated Lam, said in a statement issued on March 1 that they are concerned at the suggestion and want her to clarify what she means and why she included it in her policy manifesto.

Although 38 out of the 60 representatives in the religious sector nominated Lam, none of the 10 in the Catholic sector gave her an endorsement and only one from the Hong Kong Christian Council ticked her name, the remainder of those who endorsed a front runner gave their vote to the former financial secretary, John Tsang Chung-wah, or the retired judge, Woo Kwok-hing.

However, among the Taoist Association, Confucian Faculty, Buddhist Association and Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, endorsements were almost exclusively for Lam.

All of these groups tend to be extremely pro-government, as statements from the Colloquium of Six Religious Leaders, of which the four organisations make up two-thirds of the membership, tend to pile effusive praise on the current situation, criticise the younger generation and paint rosy pictures of the status quo.

A Hong Kong Chinese-language newspaper, the Ming Pao, reported on March 3 that Lam had acknowledged the uproar among Christian groups, assuring them that it is only a minor point in her manifesto that can easily be dropped or not pursued, or abandoned after a study is completed.

A response from the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong (see page 5) urged her to remove the suggestion from her manifesto completely, while questioning the need for such a study in the first place.

The statement says that religious freedom is already guaranteed by the Basic Law and Lam’s use of words like “can be abandoned” or “can be put off” only serve to raise further concerns among Christian groups.

On March 2, the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, wrote to Lam expressing the diocese’s resolute opposition to a religious affairs unit or similar institution in Hong Kong.

Lam responded on March 4, saying she regretted that her suggestion had created misconceptions and misunderstandings.

She added that if in fact she does become the chief executive, she will not follow up or act on it.

In her explanation, she said that it had been her intention to give religions a better chance to develop and had no intention to control or supervise their activities.

Although the South China Morning Post also reported Lam as saying that her suggestion has nothing to do with control or regulation of religious activities, general reaction from Christian commentators reflects that without specific and detailed explanation, it is impossible to know whether the devil is in the detail or the detail itself is the devil.

The anti-climactic saga left the matter a bit of a comedy of wordplay and while its humour may not have reached the dizzy heights of the famed Carry on Doctor… Nurse… Teacher… film series, it is at least a sample of Carrie on Religion.

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