SCMP: Life after handover a true test of faith [Excerpt]

South China Morning Post

BENEATH THE apparently calm surface of spiritual life in Hong Kong - where adherents of various faiths can freely attend services and visit Buddhist and Taoist temples or Muslim mosques - disturbing signs are emerging about the prospects for religious freedom. [...]

With Hong Kong coming under the aegis of Beijing, Christian churches were worried they would have to swear allegiance to Beijing and cut foreign ties to be allowed to continue worshipping. [...]

But veteran religious activist Mary Yuen Mee-yin, executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese, sees trouble brewing. The most worrying trend, she says, is the government's increasingly narrow definition of religion.

Ms Yuen warns that the government is becoming increasingly hostile to some religious groups that have been active in criticizing it or in frontline political activities in the fight for social justice.

"The government has not intervened much into religious affairs, but Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's mentality towards religion is too narrow. Religious freedom is not just about being allowed to go to church, but to be able to live out what you believe," she said. [...]

The biggest and most obvious controversy that has impinged on [belief] freedom since 1997 has been the government's handling of the presence of practitioners of Falun Gong, the movement [persecuted] on the mainland in 1999.

Practitioners have staged protests and circulated petitions about the treatment of counterparts across the border. [...] Foreign practitioners have been prevented from entering the SAR to protest and local [practitioners] say they have been denied the use of public facilities on more than 50 occasions.

Spokesman Kan Hung-cheung says the government has deliberately been trying to curb practitioners' activities since the [group] was [persecuted] by Beijing. "In terms of religious freedom, there is a danger of the `mainlandisation' of the SAR because Tung is so keen to listen to whatever Beijing says. [...]" he said.

But the movement has not been outlawed in Hong Kong and continues to be tolerated, if only just, by officials. Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen last year sought to put an end to speculation that the government would ban the movement. "We are dealing with the Falun Gong by not dealing with the Falun Gong. That is the Hong Kong way," he said. [...]

But Mr Kan still worries that an anti-subversion law required to be implemented in Hong Kong under the Basic Law will jeopardize Falun Gong's presence. [...]

Bishop Zen, among other religious leaders, has complained that the government's education reforms seek to wrest control of the running of schools away from the Church to school boards as part of a "conspiracy" to rein in the Church. "You can understand why the Government is so worried that we control our schools. We are too powerful and it is afraid of us," Bishop Zen has said. [...]

There have been claims that Beijing's representatives have also become more aggressive and sought to directly intervene in local religious affairs. [...]

Another concern is a growing gap between leaders of mainstream faiths and grass-root religious groups. Except for rare outspoken clerics like Bishop Zen, who has been criticized by some members of the clergy and lay members for being too anti-establishment, religious heavyweights have been increasingly inclined to rally behind the authorities. [...]

Rose Wu Lo-sai, of the Hong Kong Christian Institute, says religions should be "voices of justice" in society, even if it meant being dissidents.

"My fear is that this voice will become smaller and smaller, churches will become more co-operative with the Government, rather than challenge it when unjust policies are being implemented," she says.

"Unless the churches use their moral power and stay vigilant, the government will become increasingly nasty."

Ambrose Leung is a staff writer for the Post's political desk

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