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Chinese worship flourishes in Hong Kong’s oldest colonial church

March 30, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ After services at Hong Kong’s oldest church, Jessie Zhang sipped tea, munched cookies and mulled over the meaning of her last Easter under British rule.

``The last one before the handover is a special Easter,″ she said. ``We don’t know what it will be like afterward, but of course it’s our heart’s desire that everything will be all right.″

St. John’s Cathedral, the Anglican church where she worshiped, is a highly visible symbol of the colonial age that will end on July 1, when China takes over.

It was among the first permanent buildings to go up after British troops landed on Hong Kong Island in 1841. Once a commanding feature of the skyline, it is now nestled among the skyscrapers that assert Hong Kong’s financial pre-eminence.

Like the rest of Hong Kong, St. John’s has had ample time to prepare for the July 1 change of sovereignty. Ten years ago, it started offering services in Mandarin, China’s national language.

China has promised Hong Kong can keep the freedoms it acquired under British rule, including freedom of worship. But many Christians are uneasy nonetheless, because of the way religion is tightly controlled in China, and unauthorized churches are routinely harassed and outlawed.

Zhang, 25, was christened in St. John’s after arriving in Hong Kong two years ago from Wuhan in central China to work in a bank. She regularly attends prayers at St. John’s. But with her work contract expired, she is returning to China, and worries about finding a suitable church in which to keep the faith.

Although just 8 percent of Hong Kong’s 6.3 million people are Christian, the church has always been a social force through its network of schools, clinics and charities.

Today, as Hong Kong’s ties with its future sovereign expand, Chinese-language services are increasingly in demand, said Lyon Y. Lee, the chief usher, as he changed out of his white-and-gold communion robes and joined the tea party.

Easter Sunday was a joyous, multilingual mix at St. John’s. After services for about 100 Chinese led by Rev. Samuel Wu, Rev. Hugh Phillipson took over with an English-language service for colonials, overseas Chinese and other expatriates.

Lying between the harbor-front business district and the governor’s palatial hillside residence, St. John’s has been Hong Kong’s establishment church for 150 years.

It’s a large, Gothic-style cathedral, painted cream to deflect the tropical sun, and its religious imagery includes a stained glass window featuring a Chinese fisherwoman in a conical straw hat.

Flocks of screeching yellow-crested cockatoos, escapees from a nearby aviary, have made their home in the Cathedral’s garden, perching and preening in its square tower.

A brass wall plaque honors British navy Capt. William Thornton Bate, ``killed under the walls of Canton at the storming of the city on December 29, 1857, aged 37.″

But on July 1, the last British soldiers will be gone and the People’s Liberation Army will march in.

Rev. Wu said he was prepared for whatever the future holds.

``I am not optimistic, not pessimistic,″ he said. ``Just go on as usual.″

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