Reuters: Vatican rep warned Catholic missionaries of Hong Kong crackdown

HONG KONG (CNS) — A Vatican representative in Hong Kong warned Catholic missionaries there to be prepared for a tougher future as China tightened its control over the former British colony, said a Reuters news report based on interviews.

Reporting on the Reuters story, said Archbishop Javier Herrera-Corona, the unofficial Vatican representative in Hong Kong, had four meetings with 50 Catholic religious orders before he ended his six-year term in March. He warned the missioners during these meetings, Reuters reported July 5.

The 54-year-old Mexican prelate left Hong Kong after he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Congo and Gabon Feb. 5.

The private meetings were held over several months beginning last October. During the sessions, the Vatican envoy urged missionary groups to take appropriate measures to protect the property, files, and funds of their missions, people familiar with the meetings told Reuters. Their identities were kept secret due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Archbishop Herrera-Corona told his colleagues that “the freedoms they had enjoyed for decades were over.”

“Change is coming, and you’d better be prepared,” he was quoted as saying. “Hong Kong is not the great Catholic beachhead it was.”

Chinese and Hong Kong flags hang in the rain on a street before the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, June 30, 2022. Reuters news agency reported that a Vatican representative in Hong Kong warned Catholic missionaries there to be prepared for a tougher future as China tightened its control over the former British colony. (CNS photo/Paul Yeung, Reuters)

The Vatican official’s meetings took place when a massive political crisis began in the semi-autonomous city amid extreme erosion of freedoms, rights and democracy due to a heavy-handed crackdown on pro-democracy supporters from Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing regime.

The higher degree of autonomy guaranteed for the city for 50 years following the 1997 British handover under the “one country, two systems” framework has been snubbed since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law in 2020 in the wake of huge anti-government protests.

Dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists, including prominent Catholic figures like media mogul Jimmy Lai, have been arrested and jailed. Many have fled the city and relocated to other countries, including Taiwan, to avoid arrest and abuses.

The report said even before March, Archbishop Herrera-Corona and other envoys in the city began transferring archives overseas for safekeeping in response to increased surveillance and the national security law, which came into force in June 2020.

More than half a ton of the files, “transferred using the friendly diplomatic connection,” were documents relating to missionary activities in mainland China and Hong Kong, the report said, quoting unnamed missionaries and diplomats.

Missionary societies and congregations based in Hong Kong developed the island city as a Catholic enclave on the fringe of Communist China for missionary activities in mainland China, the report claimed.

According to a Hong Kong diocesan directory, some 600 priests, brothers and nuns serve in various fields in the city, including schools and hospitals. The city has an estimated 500,000 Catholics in a population of 7 million.

Foreign missionary groups have enjoyed unfettered freedoms in Hong Kong for decades, and they worked closely with the local church in Hong Kong to carry out missionary activities such as eradication of poverty, humanitarian assistance and promoting education.

These missionary societies have also maintained close ties with Catholics on the mainland, where the Chinese Communist Party strictly controls all forms of religious activities.

Despite not having formal ties, the Vatican has posted two unofficial representatives in Hong Kong, and in Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province and has threatened to annex militarily.

In February, when the Vatican pulled its envoys out of Hong Kong and Taiwan, media speculated the move was the Holy See’s preparations to establish formal diplomatic ties with China, which Archbishop Herrera-Corona later dismissed.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said the authorities are committed to respecting and protecting the human rights of all as stipulated under the Basic Law and the national security law, which guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms for the city’s residents.

During his briefing to missionary groups Archbishop Herrera-Corona, however, expressed fears that the worst was yet to come for the Catholic Church as Chinese authorities have identified several prominent Catholics who supported the pro-democracy movement and criticized the national security law.

He was proved right.

In May, Hong Kong police arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a former bishop of Hong Kong diocese along with other activists on a charge of “colluding with foreign forces” for allegedly supporting pro-democracy protesters.

Following a global outrage, Cardinal Zen was released shortly after.

The Hong Kong Diocese did not comment on the meetings and warnings of the archbishop, saying that no diocesan representative was present during the briefings, Reuters reported.

The spokesman, however, noted the national security law had not affected the pastoral missions of foreign missions in the city so far.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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