The Hong Kong government has dismissed petition from ten bishops to release the Catholic entrepreneur and democracy activist Jimmy Lai from prison, accusing them of using “distorted words” which verge on “contempt of court”.
The Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark and Bishop Alan McGuckian of Raphoe were among the signatories of the appeal launched on 1 November.
They said that Lai’s support for democracy through public interventions and his since-closed newspaper Apple Daily was no cause for imprisonment. He was arrested in 2020 under a draconian national security law and has been in prison for more than 1,000 days, with prosecutors now threatening a life sentence.
“There is no place for such cruelty and oppression in a territory that claims to uphold the rule of law and respect the right to freedom of expression,” the petition said.
The territory’s authorities issued a statement on 9 November accusing the “foreign Catholic leaders” of attempting “to interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong and in the independent exercise of the judicial power of its courts”.
On 7 November, Hong Kong Watch published a report detailing “clear signs of violations of freedom of religion or belief and early warning signs of worse to come” in the territory.
It specified threats to legislative protections for religion and religious education, and the effects of self-censorship, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) working to “coerce and subsume religious institutions into its apparatus of state”.
Writing on The Tablet’s website, the report’s author Benedict Rogers said: “We cannot separate political and religious freedoms. When freedom of expression is taken away, freedom of conscience – and thereby, religion – is inherently undermined.”
A senior bishop in the state-sanctioned Catholic Church in China has reiterated his support for the government’s policy of “sinicisation” of religion.
Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai told the state news agency China News Service that “sinicisation is not to change religious beliefs, but to adapt better and integrate into society”
“Sinicisation is a directional issue: a signpost and a direction to adapt to the socialist society, as well as an inherent rule and a fundamental requirement for the survival and development of the Catholic Church in China itself,” he said.
Shen is chairman of the Chinese bishops’ conference and vice-chairman of the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
He was appointed to the Diocese of Shanghai by the Chinese government in April without reference to the Vatican, which later approved the transfer despite the breach of its 2018 agreement with Beijing.
Last week the government introduced a “Patriotic Education Law” to secure “religious professionals’ and believers’ identification with the great motherland, the Chinese people, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
This extends existing requirements for churches and religious groups to adapt their instruction to CCP requirements. It includes specific provisions for the legislation’s extension to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee said that his government would “fully facilitate the relevant work to coordinate within the government and also the patriotic forces of different sectors in making persistent efforts to promote patriotic education”.