Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law won’t affect seal of confession, diocese says

Catholic pilgrims from Hong Kong came to see the pope at the welcome ceremony in Sukhbaatar Square on Sept. 2, 2023. Catholic pilgrims from Hong Kong came to see the pope at the welcome ceremony in Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Sept. 2, 2023. | Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

The Diocese of Hong Kong on Friday issued a statement that the seal of confession would not be violated under the new National Security Law, legislation that grants greater latitude to prosecute crimes of treason and foreign political interference.

“With regard to the legislation of Article 23 on safeguarding national security, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes that as a citizen, it has obligation to national security,” the March 15 statement said. 

In the brief statement, released on Friday, the Diocese of Hong Kong stated that the legislation will not alter the confidential nature of confession (the sacrament of reconciliation) of the Church. According to diocesan figures, the Catholic population of Hong Kong — a city of 7.5 million — is 392,000. 

The new 212-page homegrown National Security Law, also known as Article 23 of the Basic Law — the constitutional document guaranteeing Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule — is the latest attempt to curtail civil liberty and crack down on crimes against national security, including treason, espionage, external interference, and disclosure of state secrets. 

The draft bill in the Special Administrative Region comes after Beijing imposed a sweeping National Security Law in June 2020, granting the government maximum latitude to interpret threats to national security and the unchecked authority to crack down on any form of perceived political dissidence and public protest.

Clergy could face 14 years in prison

The proposed legislation, unveiled on March 8, comes after a four-week-long consultation period, culminating in a 220-page summary report. The new legislation carries up to life imprisonment for treason, while failure to disclose treason committed by others carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. It includes a provision to protect attorneys from being charged with treason but does now allow clergy the same protection.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok told journalists last week that it would be “very difficult to create exceptions” for people like clergy and social workers. 

U.S. weighs in

U.S. lawmakers have expressed fears that the new law would further erode fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and be used to bring it further under the orbit of Beijing. 

“With Article 23 legislation, the Hong Kong government explicitly seeks to bring local laws in line with the PRC’s expansive concept of national security. This aligns with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s political agenda as codified in the 1025 PRC National Security Law,” a March 14 letter sent by the Congressional-Executive Committee on China to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated. 

“The Hong Kong government already routinely uses the pretext of ‘national security’ to gut the free press and quash any semblance of political opposition,” the statement continued. 

An attempt was first made to push through Article 23 in 2003 — following the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to Chinese rule in 1997— was shelved following popular backlash when more than 500,000 people took to the streets to protest. 

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