Activist: China’s ‘killing’ of Hong Kong paper has ‘serious implications’ for religious liberty

An editor prepares the final edition of the Apple Daily An editor prepares the final edition of the Apple Daily. | Via Wikimedia (copyrighted free use).

A human rights activist has said that the Chinese Communist Party’s “killing” of a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong has “serious implications” for religious liberty.

Benedict Rogers, the co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, told CNA that the suppression of Apple Daily, founded by Catholic billionaire Jimmy Lai, was not simply a blow to press freedom.

“The killing of Apple Daily by the Chinese Communist Party regime represents the death of media freedom in Hong Kong,” he said via email.

“This is yet another chapter in the regime’s dismantling of freedom itself in Hong Kong, in all its forms, in total, flagrant and repeated violation of an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is registered at the United Nations and valid until 2047.”

Rogers said that the episode had “serious implications for religious freedom” for two main reasons.

“Firstly, as freedom as a whole is dismantled, inevitably religious freedom, as a component of freedom and a basic human right, will be undermined. You cannot separate religious freedom from other human rights,” he stressed.

“Secondly, and more specifically, Apple Daily was founded and owned by Jimmy Lai, a devout Catholic, and was a constant champion of religious freedom. I know from my own experience as a weekly contributor to Apple Daily that the newspaper gave me a freedom to write about faith and religion in a way that no other secular, daily, mass-market publication anywhere in the world has done.”

Hong Kongers queued for hours on the morning of June 24 to buy the final edition of Apple Daily. The newspaper said it was obliged to close after police froze $2.3 million of its assets and arrested five senior editors and executives under the stringent national security law, enacted in June 2020.

Lai, who founded Apple Daily in 1995, was arrested in August 2020, for alleged breaches of the law and jailed until April 2021, when he was sentenced to a further 14 months for “unauthorized assembly.”

British human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers / Courtesy photo
British human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers / Courtesy photo

Rogers, who converted to Catholicism in 2013 and is based in London, England, emphasized that he was not arguing that the closure of Apple Daily and the jailing of Jimmy Lai were religious freedom issues.

“But I am saying that the killing of this newspaper, the jailing of Jimmy Lai, the death of media freedom, has ramifications for religious freedom. When you silence freedom of expression, inevitably you silence freedom of religion,” he said.

“And furthermore, since the imposition a year ago of the draconian national security law on Hong Kong, we have seen religious freedom affected -- at least one church that offered pastoral support to pro-democracy activists has been raided, its bank accounts frozen and the church now closed.”

Rogers, who was denied entry to Hong Kong in October 2017 and is likely banned from the city for life, accused the local Catholic diocese of “self-censoring.”

He pointed to a pastoral letter that Cardinal John Tong Hon wrote to priests following the passage of the national security law, warning them of the need to “watch our language” in homilies.

Rogers said: “We may not see freedom of worship -- the right to go to Mass on Sundays -- affected, and we may not see the destruction of churches and crosses in Hong Kong as we see in mainland China, but we are already seeing a restriction of freedom of religion and conscience in terms of what priests feel comfortable to preach, to say, to advise.”

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, said last week that he was not convinced that speaking out on the situation in Hong Kong would make a difference.

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“One can say a lot of, shall we say, appropriate words that would be appreciated by the international press and by many parts of the world, but I -- and, I think, many of my colleagues -- have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever,” he commented.

Rogers argued that the Holy See had a duty to speak out.

“The international community, including especially the Vatican, must speak out. If we don’t speak out, who will?” he asked.

“And democracies must work in concert, to coordinate sanctions and pressure. If the free world unites and puts pressure on the Chinese Communist Party regime, it has a chance of helping.”

“If it stays silent and acquiesces with repression, then not only will the repression in Hong Kong intensify, it will extend further into aggression towards Taiwan and an assault on our own freedoms.”

“So it is in everyone’s interests to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party,” he concluded, “and say enough is enough, and to coordinate actions to curtail and reign in their repression. Failure to do so is a total moral failure and a total capitulation to evil.”

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