Amid continued controversy surrounding large-scale political protests in Hong Kong, and fears of a crackdown by the Communist Chinese government, Catholic leaders are echoing protesters’ calls for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.
“I ask the Lord to move the government of the special administrative region to respond to the public opinion, and set up an 'Independent Commission of inquiry' so that the community can begin with the truth and begin the path of real reconciliation,” Hong Kong Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, a supporter of the protest movement, wrote on Facebook Oct. 21.
“During a gathering last Saturday, I am so moved by our young faithful who expressed their views on our Church’s participation in the society. Again, I am convinced that one of the necessary ways to resolve the current difficult situation in Hong Kong is the setting up of an ‘independent commission of inquiry,’” he continued.
Bishop Ha’s statement was posted as the legislature of Hong Kong completed the process of officially withdrawing a controversial extradition bill Wednesday, which would have allowed the Chinese government to extradite alleged criminals from Hong Kong to the mainland to stand trial.
The impetus for the bill was a case involving a young Hong Kong man whom Taiwan requested be extradited for an alleged murder. Hong Kong previously has no formal extradition agreements with mainland China or Taiwan.
Christians and advocates widely opposed the bill, fearing that the Chinese government, which already seeks to control and suppress Chistianity on the mainland, would use it to further tighten its grip on free exercise of religion in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. Hong Kongers enjoy freedom of worship and evangelization, while in mainland China, by contrast, there is a long history of persecution for Christians who run afoul of the government.
An estimated 1 million protesters turned out at the first major demonstration June 6. Catholics have played a major role in the protests since then.
Bishop Ha reiterated calls for prayer, urging the faithful to pray the rosary during the month of October and finish with the intention: "Mary, untier of knots, please pray for us!"
Bishop Ha has taken part in ecumenical prayer rallies with protesters in the past, urged an increase in prayer and said he is concerned for the safety of the many young people involved in the protests. He told CNA in September that he urges “Friday fasting” as part of the prayer for peace in Hong Kong.
Though chief executive Carrie Lam suspended the bill June 15 and even apologized, protesters feared that the proposal could be reintroduced. The next day, an estimated 2 million marchers were out on the streets.
Though the protests have been largely peaceful, participants on both sides have periodically resorted to violence. Police have used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon on protesters repeatedly. Thousands of high school and college students staged a strike on the first day of classes Sept. 2, with many wearing gas masks and helmets.
Police shot an 18-year-old protester in the chest Oct. 1, and Jimmy Sham, leader of the pro-democracy group Civil Human Rights Front, was hospitalized last week after being attacked by a group of men wielding hammers and knives at a protest.
Since the protests have gone on, Beijing has instituted a travel ban for some Catholics seeking to enter the island, and Chinese officials are reportedly concerned that Catholics on the mainland could work with the Catholic Church in Hong Kong to inspire similar resistance.
Protesters are demanding that Lam resign for her failure to respond to their demands.
Though Lam has said she has no plans to resign, the Financial Times newspaper reported recently that China's government is drawing up plans to remove Lam and replace her with an interim chief executive after calm returns to Hong Kong, though China's foreign ministry responded to the report calling it "a political rumor with ulterior motives.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a sharp critic of the Sept. 2018 Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops, also has spoken strongly in support of the protesters and in support of an independent inquiry into the police’s tactics.
“We denounce the escalation of police brutality and arbitrary use of force against peaceful protesters, reporters, first-aiders, and ordinary citizens of Hong Kong. We believe it is in China's interest to show the global community; it is not an enemy of open society and democracy,” a statement from the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal in Hong Kong reads, which Zen shared on social media Oct. 23.