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Catholics in Hong Kong fear that religious freedom is under threat

Article 23 of the National Security Law makes "failing to disclose the commission of treason by others" a criminal offence punishable with extended prison penalty.

Christians and human rights groups expressed concerns that the Chinese government could use the new law to pressure priests into disclosing secrets shared under the Seal of the Confessional, which is valued as sacred in Catholic doctrine. Many priests are afraid that Chinese authorities will violate the sanctity of the confessional by threatening priests with jail sentence, sending undercover agents into confessionals to entrap them, and placing listening devices in churches.

A UK advocacy group, Hong Kong Watch, sent a letter to Hong Kong’s Legislative Assembly, claiming that the law is a violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it threatens religious freedoms and rights of individuals. 

The letter states: “For many religious traditions, and especially for the Catholic Church, the practice of what is known as the Sacrament of Penance (otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession) is a religious act of absolutely pivotal, sacrosanct importance. At the heart of the Sacrament of Penance is the absolutely vital principle of confidentiality…a priest might encourage a penitent who has committed a serious crime to confess that crime to the authorities, the priest cannot report it himself and must never be held criminally liable for having heard that confession.”

A spokesperson for the Chinese government accused the group of being “anti-Chinese” and misrepresenting the law: “The offences of treason and misprision of treason…do not target religious personnel or followers, and have nothing to do with freedom of religion. In any case, freedom of religion is not for protecting anyone who has committed serious offences from legal sanctions.”

A Catholic priest from Hong Kong refers to the new law as “a knife above your head”. Another priest says: “For us true believers, we are not scared, we only worry that people in need will not be helped. In reality, we are not able to spread the whole gospel, we are not allowed to speak the whole truth, we are not free to warn our people about the evil of communism and the harms it has done in history. What kind of truth-bearers are we, if we do not stand up for the truth? That’s the main struggle.”

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong released a statement confirming that the legislation would not “alter the confidential nature of Confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation) of the Church”, however, it also states: “Citizens have an obligation to ensure national security. Instead of a physical crackdown on religion in Hong Kong, the authorities’ aim is to create an environment in which religious leaders and practitioners feel obligated to self-censor and act in a subservient manner, thus compromising the basic freedom of worship that they should enjoy.”


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