Silence and Tension in Hong Kong

HONG KONG - This weekend, thousands of Lutherans will arrive for their World Federation's ninth General Assembly, flowing into this city's new convention center in the wake of what seemed like most of the world's diplomats and news crews.

Commentators will hail the gathering as another sign that life is continuing as usual with red Chinese flags flying overhead.

The reality is more complicated than that. The decision to hold this Lutheran assembly in Hong Kong was made five years ago and it drew a behind- the-scenes reaction that raised eyebrows. Officials at the New China News Agency - the Chinese hierarchy's Hong Kong voice before the handover - began asking if the assembly would address any "political" issues.

Eventually, the Lutherans got the nod. But religious leaders got the point.

"This is Hong Kong. This is one of the most international cities in the world," stressed the Rev. Kwok Nai-wang, director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute. "Day in and day out, we have international meetings of all kinds here. We have never had to ask for the government's permission. This was a signal that things would be different after July 1."

Religious groups in the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region have been promised that little will change. Article 32 of its Basic Law seems clear: "Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of conscience. Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of religious belief and freedom to preach and to conduct and participate in religious activities in public."

Once again, the reality will almost certainly be more complex than that. China's leaders have repeatedly said that Hong Kong must retain its unique role as one of the world's most freewheeling financial markets and as the economic gateway to the mainland. Yet the region's new leaders also have taken the first steps to control -- not crush -- those who want to defend human rights in Hong Kong or to advocate changes in the mainland.

In the weeks ahead, media attention will focus on critical issues of economics, dissent and freedom of the press. Yet these issues will also affect people in churches, temples and mosques. After all, Hong Kong has for decades served as the hub for hundreds of religious groups with regional and global ties. Multinational corporations are not the only groups that worry about losing control of their Hong Kong assets. Politicians and reporters are not the only people who fear losing their right to speak in the public square.

"Freedom of religion -- if you limit that to freedom of worship -- is certainly going to be safe," said Kwok, who led the Hong Kong Christian Council from 1977-88. "If we want to meet our social responsibilities to the poor, or if we challenge social structures and policies, we will be in trouble. ... But faith cannot be merely a private matter, if it is truly free. It is a matter of public action. That will place us on a collision course."

Most Hong Kong religious leaders issued cautiously optimistic statements in the days leading up to this week's handover. Others had varying reasons to remain silent.

Because of Hong Kong's history as a British colony, its Anglican churches and schools have close ties to the government and to the tycoons that govern the city. Also, as much as 80 percent of Roman Catholic education and social work in Hong Kong is government subsidized. The leaders of these 400 establishment parishes have clout, but can ill afford to rock the boat. Hong Kong insiders call this "The Unholy Alliance." Meanwhile, those who lead the region's 800-plus evangelical churches and mission groups insist that they will stay focused on ministry, while avoiding controversial public issues.

"We are not saying that nothing bad is going to happen," said a Baptist leader, who asked to remain anonymous. "We are saying that there is a piece of paper that says nothing bad is going to happen."