‘It would make a big difference’: Human rights activist urges Vatican to change tack on China
British human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers/ Courtesy photo
CNA Staff, Apr 23, 2021 / 03:00 am
A British human rights activist has said that it would make a “big difference” if the Vatican publicly expressed its concerns about the actions of the Chinese Communist Party.
Benedict Rogers told CNA April 21 that even a small gesture would be meaningful for those suffering as a result of Beijing’s actions both in mainland China and Hong Kong.
“I would say, you don’t have to speak out in a directly political way. For example, I think it would go a long way if the pope were simply to pray for the Uyghurs, and Christians in China, and the people of Hong Kong, as he does for so many other parts of the world, perhaps during the Sunday Angelus or on some other occasion,” he said.
“So I think if he could find the right moment and the right context to express his concern, and he can do it in a prayerful way, he doesn’t have to make a political comment. He doesn’t have to say that it’s a genocide or any sort of potentially loaded terms.”
“But just praying for the people of China and, particularly the Uyghurs, Christians, and Hong Kong, I think that would make a big difference.”
Rogers is the founder of Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based organization monitoring human rights, freedoms, and rule of law in the city on China’s southern coast. The charity, founded in 2017, occupies much of his time, but he also works as a senior analyst on East Asia for the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
He described the Holy See’s current stance on China as “puzzling,” given its longstanding commitment to defending human rights.
“The current pope is particularly outspoken on issues of persecution, injustice, and conflict around the world. Almost every Sunday when he prays the Angelus he prays for one particular area of the world or another,” he said, speaking to CNA the day before U.K. MPs unanimously declared that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uyghurs.
“He’s been very good on Myanmar [Burma], for example, and so it’s really puzzling why there’s this almost complete silence on everything to do with China, whether it’s the Uyghurs or Hong Kong or Christians or Tibet.”
Rogers, who converted to Catholicism in 2013, suggested that the Vatican’s present position was rooted in history.
“From what I understand, the pope personally has a real desire -- a very good desire -- to strengthen the Church in China,” he said.
“I think he has a personal, maybe somewhat romantic, love of [16th-century Jesuit missionary] Matteo Ricci and the history of the Jesuits in influencing the imperial court in China in Ricci’s time.”
“And perhaps there’s a certain idea that by trying to build a relationship with the Chinese regime and not speaking out publicly, they can, in the long run, be a positive influence.”
Rogers said that this “well-intentioned” approach was unlikely to succeed given the nature of the Chinese Communist Party.
“But I suppose having got into this approach, they’re finding it hard to extract themselves from it,” he commented.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, often described as the Vatican’s “foreign minister,” recently told America magazine that “grandstanding” statements would be counter-productive.
“I think you will find it true that the Holy See does not have a policy, a diplomatic policy, of denunciation almost anywhere in the world, and there are human rights abuses in many, many countries,” he said.
Gallagher said that the Holy See preferred to work with the local Church, citing a split among Hong Kong Catholics between “Beijing loyalists” and “people who would like greater freedom and greater exceptions for Hong Kong.”
He concluded: “I think you have to ask what effect [a statement] is going to have. Is it going to produce a positive change, or does it make the situation more complicated for the local Church and for relations with the Holy See? At the moment, we feel that’s the right approach.”
Rogers said that Gallagher was right about the sharp differences between Catholics in the city. He noted that Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong who backed the contentious National Security Law passed in June 2020, is a Catholic. But so too is Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon imprisoned April 16 for taking part in pro-democracy protests.
He said that the Chinese Communist Party’s intention was clear in Hong Kong, which Britain handed over to China in 1997, with the understanding that the territory would continue to have a separate political and economic system to the mainland.
“It seems to me that Beijing is absolutely determined and will stop at nothing to silence dissent in Hong Kong, as it has done, or has sought to do, in mainland China,” he observed.
(Story continues below)
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“The Chinese Communist Party of course has always been repressive but there was before Xi Jinping, under some of his most immediate predecessors, a certain amount of space allowed within limits.”
“Xi Jinping appears to have completely closed that space throughout China. So it’s just totally intolerant of any form of opposition. And I think that’s what this is about in Hong Kong.”
The crackdown is taking place while Catholics in Hong Kong await a new leader. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong has remained vacant since Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung died suddenly in January 2019.
Rogers wrote an article for UCA News this week urging the Vatican to appoint Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing to the post.
He told CNA that the vacancy presented a headache for the Vatican.
“The problem the Vatican has is that if it appoints the candidate who is the most obvious choice and also would be the most popular with the laity, it would be Bishop Ha. But that’s problematic for Beijing,” he explained.
“If they appoint Beijing’s preferred choice -- my understanding is that it’s the vicar general [Fr. Peter Choy Wai-man] -- that would be very unpopular with many people.”
Another option might be for the Vatican to do nothing: leaving Hong Kong diocese in the care of its apostolic administrator, Cardinal John Tong Hon.
The cardinal served as bishop of Hong Kong from 2009 to 2017, when he retired for age reasons. He stepped back into a leadership position following the death of his successor, Bishop Yeung.
“At the moment [Tong] seems pretty able, physically and mentally, but he’s trod a line that is pretty compromising with Beijing,” Rogers argued, comparing him unfavorably with the outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, who served as bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009.
For example, he said, Tong wrote to priests following the passage of the National Security Law warning them of the need to “watch our language” in homilies.
“I guess as long as he’s healthy then I suppose there isn’t anything to stop the Vatican just keeping him there,” he reflected. “But on the other hand, he’s 81, so presumably that’s not a solution that can last for very long.”
Rogers said that if he was given a few minutes to talk to the pope and his senior advisers, he would try to convince them of the need for a new approach to China.
“I would say that I deeply respect and understand the motivations behind the path that they’ve been pursuing, but that the reality on the ground is that, in terms of religious persecution and freedom as a whole, things have deteriorated,” he said.
He would argue that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted to keep its side of the provisional agreement renewed by the Vatican in October.
“I would also say that quite a lot of Catholics in China feel very confused and let down,” he added.
“We’ve seen underground Catholic clergy and lay people, but particularly clergy, who’ve been loyal to Rome for decades at huge risk to themselves being asked by Rome to step aside in favor of Beijing appointees. And I think that’s causing him quite a lot of hurt and confusion among Catholics in China.”
In October 2017, Rogers was denied entry to Hong Kong and believes he is probably banned from the city for life.
“So I think for both reasons -- the fact that I was denied entry in 2017, and my role with the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission -- makes it pretty safe to assume that I can’t go to Hong Kong or China,” he said.
Theoretically, he could also fall under the far-reaching Hong Kong national security law.
“One of the things about the National Security Law is that it has an extra-territorial clause,” he explained. “It says that basically anyone anywhere in the world who is regarded as in breach of the National Security Law can be charged.”
“Obviously they can’t in practice really do that with me in London, but presumably, in theory at least, if I set foot in Hong Kong they could.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has warned that the recent arrest of Jimmy Lai shows a rise in “political intimidation” against journalists in Hong Kong, part of a systematic erosion of basic freedoms, including religious freedom, by the Chinese government in recent months.
In the wake of the sentencing of several pro-democracy figures, one observer said this week that this would be an ideal time for Pope Francis to appoint Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who has publicly supported the island’s pro-democracy movement, as bishop of the diocese.