Despite these concerns, Cardinal John Tong Hon, who is temporarily leading the Diocese of Hong Kong after previously retiring from the position in 2017, spoke publicly of his support for the new security law and his confidence in its provisions for the Church. “I personally believe that the National Security Law will have no effect on religious freedom,” Tong said in June, before the final text had been released.
Noting that the Basic Law of Hong Kong guarantees the right to “openly preach and hold religious ceremonies, and participate in religious activities,” he dismissed concerns that direct links with the Vatican by the diocese could be deemed “collusion.”
“The diocese has always had a direct relationship with the Vatican; the relationship between the Hong Kong diocese and the Vatican should be regarded as an internal matter,” Tong said.
Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, himself an unsparing critic of the Vatican-China deal and the Hong Kong security law, conceded that Tong was in a “tricky situation” as the interim head of the diocese.
“On the one hand, it will be a lot of trouble if we don’t support the government. We never know what they will do to our Church,” said Zen. “On the other hand, [Tong] disappointed many within the Church by giving his support.”
CNA spoke to a senior chancery official in the Diocese of Hong Kong, who asked not to be named, citing concerns about the new security law. The official said that the local Church was split between those with dedicated pro-democracy views, and others sympathetic to the mainland.
“You cannot say that the Church in Hong Kong – the faithful – is just one thing. They are not. You have some who wish the Brits never left and others who consider themselves proudly Chinese.”
“Somewhere in the middle are many, probably most people, who just have concerns about the new laws. They want to be told that everything is going to be ok, but they also know that it probably isn’t. Hearing false reassurances [from the diocese] makes them more, not less anxious.”
Cardinal Zen has also been consistently critical of the Vatican for its failure to denounce, or even acknowledge, the situation in Hong Kong, or the wider human rights crisis on the mainland.
However, a senior Vatican official close to the Secretariat of State told CNA this week that the situation was constantly monitored, especially as discussions continue on the possible extension of the 2018 provisional agreement.
“Despite what [Cardinal] Zen may say, Rome is not deaf or blind,” the official said, “and the Church is never silent, but she is not always speaking in a microphone.”
The official also conceded that Cardinal Tong’s public support for the new laws had made the prospect of appointing a permanent bishop harder.
(Story cotinues below)
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“There are, of course, concerns about the situation in Hong Kong – bringing the Patriotic Church there by the Communists is the ultimate fear,” he said.
“[Cardinal] Tong would not risk being openly hostile to the government, and he shouldn’t. But appearing to support a dangerous law – even as the people are suffering under it – just makes divisions deeper.”
The official told CNA that the events of June and July meant that an announcement of a new bishop for Hong Kong was “forever delayed.”
“There must be agreement, or at least acceptability for both [the Vatican and China],” he said, but “the person has to be acceptable to the people as well.”
“We had one name last year, approved by the pope and ready, but then he became the face of protestors and had to be withdrawn.”
CNA has previously reported that, in 2019, the Vatican resolved to appoint Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing to lead the diocese. While the appointment was being processed, however, Bishop Ha was publicly seen at the front of pro-democracy demonstrations against a controversial extradition law, and his nomination was reversed before a public announcement could be made.