AP NEWS
Related topics

Hong Kong’s Christians Ponder Future Under Communist Rule

November 2, 1996

HONG KONG (AP) _ Straining to speak over children singing hymns in Cantonese, the Rev. Gabriel Lejeune tells how Vietnam’s victorious communists expelled him not once but three times.

``I was expelled from the mountains of North Vietnam, from Hanoi to Saigon and from Saigon in 1976,″ he says, ticking them off with his fingers.

Now the French Roman Catholic missionary wonders whether he’ll survive his next encounter with communist authority _ when Britain returns Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1.

He doesn’t think the Chinese will throw out Western missionaries as they did in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party took power.

``I am an optimist,″ he says. ``The Chinese have changed since then.″

Others aren’t so sure, even though China has promised not to make Hong Kong communist. Under the Basic Law, the constitution that China has prepared for post-1997 Hong Kong, the territory is to keep the freedoms it enjoyed under British rule, including religious autonomy.

But Hong Kong’s nearly 500,000 Christians _ 8 percent of the population _ are divided about whether to believe those promises. Some point to the Beijing government’s intolerance toward those who question the party line.

Some of China’s leading critics in Hong Kong are devout Christians _ men like Martin Lee, a Roman Catholic who heads Hong Kong’s largest political party, the Democrats.

``Deep down they cannot trust each other because they have no common ground,″ says Beatrice Leung, senior lecturer at Lingnan College and a nun in the locally based Order of the Precious Blood.

The Chinese mentality is ``religion serves politics, politics absorbs religion. But we don’t want politics to absorb religion,″ she says.

Chinese interference in Tibet’s religious hierarchy is not encouraging.

And in February, China disturbed many people when it sought to postpone a meeting in Hong Kong of the Lutheran World Federation next July. Beijing backtracked, saying it merely wanted to prevent a logistical clash between handover activities and the large-scale religious gathering just weeks later.

Deng Zhaoming, a Protestant who edits a religious magazine that exposes persecution of believers in China, says Communist Party bureaucrats are already meddling in Hong Kong.

Deng says he was invited by Chinese government representatives to a hotel, plied with coffee and cakes, and then accused of being biased. That meeting was ``enough _ more than enough,″ he says.

``China says: If you believe in religion, that is a private matter. But if you join an organization, then it is a social phenomenon and that must be organized by the state,″ Deng says.

Deng is planning to retire soon, saying he expects his magazine to be closed down after China regains control.

Hong Kong’s churches, long accustomed to staying out of politics, are being forced to take sides. A fierce debate has arisen, for instance, over whether to accept China’s invitation to join the 400-member committee that will select Hong Kong’s post-1997 leader and legislature.

Some church members reportedly have applied to join, but as individuals, not as representatives of their churches.

Another dispute broke out over whether churchmen should celebrate China’s National Day on Oct. 1. Some had wanted a big celebration for all Christians in Hong Kong; others said it was inappropriate for churches to celebrate a date marking the communist takeover of China. As a compromise, a small private service was held.

The Rev. John Tong, auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Church, says the clergy must trust the Basic Law.

``We can use it to fight for our power to keep things our own way,″ he says. ``If you don’t trust the Basic Law, then nothing can be done.″

For 150 years, the churches have played a major role in schooling, feeding and healing Hong Kong people. The Catholic Church alone runs 325 schools, a quarter of the total, educating about 300,000 of the colony’s youth.

Leung, the nun, doubts China will allow that to continue.

``What government would put the machinery for molding the minds of the younger generation in the hands of an organization whose ideology is opposite to theirs?″ she asks.

Another group pondering its future is a small but determined band that smuggles Bibles into China from Hong Kong.

The Rev. Dennis Balcombe, head of the evangelical Revival Christian Church, says 1997 won’t stop him.

``We take a lot of Bibles in and most of the people don’t get checked. To the few that do get checked, the border guards are very nice and say: `Don’t bring 200. Bring 50, OK?′ They are just trying to restrict the numbers.″

He says he is cautiously optimistic but his church has moved its publications section out of Hong Kong just in case.

``Even if they do say we have to join the state church, we have a structure in place so it can go on. The core of the church will be in cell-groups, in families who will meet at home.″