A longtime missionary in Hong Kong has praised the pro-democracy activists who received jail sentences last week for their vocal opposition to the city’s new national security law.

“Hong Kong, as we have known it, is no longer,” said Father Gianni Criveller.

“I have been writing this for some time, but April 16 was one of the saddest days, even on a personal emotional level, since freedom died in the former British colony on July 1, 2020,” he said, referring to the day the court imposed the sentences.

“These are men and women punished for their civic commitment and, for some, for practicing their faith in professional and political life,” he said, calling them “witnesses and prophets for our days.”

“They deserve more recognition. But our time and world do not love freedom, nor those who fight for it while paying a very dear price,” he said.

A member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), Criveller is dean of studies and a professor at the at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan. Prior to that appointment, he was a teacher in greater China for 27 years and is also a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at Hong Kong’s Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology.

Criveller’s remarks were made in a lengthy reflection published in Mondo e Missione, the PIME’s magazine, and in UCAnews, following the April 16 sentencing of 10 pro-democracy activists, five of whom were Catholic.

Most of those sentenced are among the most long-standing and well-known activists in Hong Kong and, with the exception of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, all were elected legislators.

They were arrested for alleged violations of Hong Kong’s new national security law, which went into effect June 30, 2020, and which bans treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism, and allows the Chinese Central government to establish agencies to help Hong Kong fulfill its security requirements whenever they deem necessary.

Massive protests erupted in response to the security law, with activists claiming that it abolishes the freedoms the former British colony has enjoyed since it was handed over to China in 1997. As a result of the negotiations leading up to the transfer, certain democratic rights were guaranteed for at least 50 years under the “one country, two systems” agreement.

Now, many believe that guarantee has been violated, pointing to last week’s sentencing as proof.

In his letter, Criveller admitted that the jail sentences activists received, which range from 8-19 months, “could have been more severe.”

“It is true – in these dark times there is no limit to the worst. There is perhaps still some sense of fairness in the Hong Kong judiciary,” he said, but insisted that the sentences “were not legitimate in the first place.”

Criveller noted that none of the activists were arrested for violence, but for organizing mass-demonstrations in August 2019 which, while peaceful, were not authorized, even though the security law was not in place at the time.

Those jailed for the marches “actually contained and moderated this major spontaneous demonstration. They did their utmost to maintain calm and order,” he said, adding that “they are not reckless activists but political leaders and protagonists in public life for decades.”

Criveller said there is also a religious element at play, as five of the jailed activists are Catholics.

Those Catholics include Martin Lee, 82, who is often called the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong. The most senior barrister in the city, Lee founded its Democratic Party and is one of the authors of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s constitutional charter. A daily Mass-goer, he received a one-year suspended sentence.

Former parliamentarian and unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, is also a Catholic with family ties to the PIME missionaries. He was present in China for the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and was detained, with many in Hong Kong advocating for his freedom and safe return to the city.

Sentenced to a year in prison, “I do not think he would ever have contemplated that one day he would be taken into prison in the very same Hong Kong,” Criveller said.

Cyd Ho, 66, is a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and is a founder member of the Labor Party, currently serving as its vicechair. Sentenced to eight months in prison, she was baptized by a PIME missionary when she was a young woman.

Lawyer Margaret Ng, 73, received a one-year suspended jail sentence. Also a Catholic, she spoke to the people of Hong Kong from the parliament’s balcony when the city was handed over to China from Britain, asking that freedom and democracy be preserved.

During her sentencing Friday she quoted Saint Thomas More, saying, “I have grown old in the service of the rule of law…I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.”

Jimmy Lai, 72, who is one of the most public faces of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and who has already been in prison for some time, is also a Catholic. Founder of Apple Daily, the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong, he was baptized as an adult with the help of Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. In addition to the time he has already served, Lai received another 14-month jail sentence.

Referring to the Catholics who were sentenced, most of whom he knows personally, Criveller said they are people “who have welcomed Gospel’s message seriously.”

“They believe in freedom, whose author is Jesus himself. They believe in the dignity of free men and women, as we are children of God, created in God’s image, protagonists in building the common good for all of humanity,” he said.