Clouds over Hong ong deal
David Alton (right) and David Atkinson (left) question Britain's 1997 deal Imaill■■•1
HONG KONG's Christians fear for their independence and freedom of action after 1999 when the British enclave becomes a part of mainland communist China.
And their concern is justified because of the continued tight control exerted on churches by the Beijing government according to David Atkinson and David Alton, two Catholic MPs recently returned from the east.
During their l2-day mission, the two youthful parliamentarians from different sides of the House, were united in many of their perceptions about the dangers facing Christians in Hong Kong.
David Atkinson stressed that freedom of worship is guaranteed for believers under the terms of the agreement signed last year by the British and Chinese governments on the handover of Hong Kong.
He added that so far the Chinese have emphasised many times their willingness and determination to uphold this part of the agreement.
However, he felt that words are not enough to soothe the fears of Christians in this Crown Colony. He would like to see the Chinese government take positive steps to prove their goodwill. For example, during their visit to Shanghai, the two MPs requested a meeting with the city's Catholic Bishop, Gong Pinmei, who was recently released from prison after 30 years. His crime had been to refuse to break his links with the Vatican. The MPs' request was turned down. "He has a cold", they were informed. • Equally the two-man mission expressed concern at the fate of four elderly Catholic priests still [anguishing in the city's prison. Frs Chen Cai Jun, Zhu Hong Seng, Chen Yun Tang and Shen Bai Sun were sentenced to 15 years in jail in 1981 for "antirevolutionary" activities.
"We believe that the Shanghai authorities should show compassion and mercy by immediately releasing these elderly men from their captivity", the two MPs asked. "This would be a reassuring gesture to Hong Kong Christians who are understandably anxious about the future."
Since the 1950s, Chinese Catholics have been forbidden outside links with Rome. Those who remained faithful to the authority of the Vatican have been imprisoned; like Bishop Gong. The state set up its own organisation, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, to run the church; it closed churches and only recently has it begun openly to tolerate religion.
Mr Alton described the situation he saw in Shanghai as essentially "bleak", despite hopeful outward signs. "Since 1981 the relatively liberal approach of President Deng has encouraged Shanghai's Religious Affairs Bureau to gradually give permission for churches to reopen and even for seminaries to be established. Today 22 Catholic and 22 Protestant churches are officially open to believers; officially open and officially regulated."
This has to be contrasted with the 450 churches which "are standing empty, doors bolted and padlocked to prevent admission. Some others are used as homes, offices, factories or in the case of the Holy Trinity Church in Jiujang Lu, used as a builders yard. Sir Giles GilbertScott, its Catholic architect, would be saddened if he could see its condition."
David Alton and David Atkinson met Wang Hong-Kui, director of the Religious Affairs Bureau and attended a Mass celebrated at St Ignatius Cathedral, using the Tridentine rite.
They also went to a crowded service in the Evangelical Grace Church. Both of these events took place under the jurisdiction of the RAB. The two MPs tried to talk to the celebrants at both services, but received only a formal welcome and official thought.
Mr Atkinson noted in particular the absence of pictures of the Pope, or the Vatican crest in the cathedral.
According to Wang Hong-Kui there are 100,000 Catholics registered in Shanghai and 40,000 Protestants. Mass attendance is officially put at 30,000 and the diocese has its own officially appointed bishop, Zhang Jiashu.
A whole generation of officially trained clergy are coming up, David Alton noted. "The Catholic theological seminary in Shanghai is training 95 priests at present, while 40 students have just started their studies at the city's new Protestant Theological College.
One must not be misled with statistics though, David Alton pointed out. "In common with most communist countries the authorities bombard you with statistics to prove anything, but just occasionally the mask slips." The continued imprisonment of the four priests should be seen as the reality behind the mask, he says.
Although they did not encounter any Catholics outside the state church, David Alton remains convinced that "there are undoubtedly thousands of Christians outside the Patriotic Churches, holding private house meetings and Masses. The 30 people who work for Shanghai's RAB no doubt spend most of their time trying to locate and destroy the underground church
With Shanghai standing relatively near to Hong Kong, the example of the Chinese government's handling of the churches, is yet another factor in the anxieties of Christians in the British Colony. It is up to the Chinese government to allow real freedom of worship and of association, and thus reassure those worries, the two MPs concluded.
David Atkinson is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East. David Alton is Liberal Chief Whip and MP for Liverpool Mossley Hill.