China’s communist government is increasing its pressure on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong following the passage in May of the National Security Law, which gives mainland China jurisdiction in the once-autonomous region.
A lengthy report from Reuters, published Wednesday, revealed the arrests of two middle-aged Catholic nuns detained in May while visiting their families in Hebei province. Three weeks after being incarcerated, they were released into house arrest and banned from leaving mainland China.
The two nuns worked in the Vatican’s unofficial diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, the epicenter of Beijing’s crackdown on freedom and religious liberty.
Top clerics in Hong Kong and with the Vatican see the nuns’ detentions as a sign the Chinese government wants the mission shut down. And since the Vatican does not have any official diplomatic relationship with China, the mission, which does not enjoy any legitimate status, is victim to increased governmental surveillance.
In addition, Beijing it trying to influence Hong Kong in choosing its next bishop, a post that’s been vacant since the previous prelate’s death in 2018. Senior Hong Kong clergy members told Reuters Chinese authorities are attempting to invoke a two-year-old agreement with the Vatican that would allow Beijing a say in prelate appointments.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, told Reuters: “We are at the bottom of the pit — there is no freedom of expression anymore.”
He went on to say crackdowns on religious liberty “are normal” in mainland China, adding: “We are becoming like any other city in China.”
Zen, an outspoken advocate for religious liberty, told the news outlet Chinese authorities can take “any word” someone says and claim they are “offending the National Security Law.”
The anti-religious pressure from Beijing has already had a chilling effect on believers in Hong Kong.
Cardinal John Tong, acting head of the local church in Hong Kong, has been trying to quiet activist voices in the Catholic hierarchy, according to the Reuters investigation. The 81-year-old cleric has urged priests to avoid delivering sermons that are “too political,” adding they should stay away from language that might cause “social disorder.”
Among other things, the newly enacted National Security Law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces.