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Midnight oil

As protests in Hong Kong turn increasingly bloody, local pastors and churches consider how to support the democracy movement while working for peace

Midnight oil

A Christian group sings and marches through the streets of Hong Kong on Aug. 17, calling for peace. (Kiran Ridley)

On a stiflingly hot August night, about 100 Christians gathered outside the Government House, the official residence of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Holding plastic LED candles and led by a youthful worship band, they sang a Cantonese hymn based on Amos 5:24.

“Let righteousness run down like a never-failing stream / Justice like a river / God does not only reside in the Temple / He shows compassion to the oppressed / God’s tabernacle is among the people.”

Rather than facing an altar, the worshippers faced a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Behind it, Chief Executive Carrie Lam may or may not have been listening. Around the tree-covered Government Hill, police officers watched over the quarters. The event organizers did not know if Lam was at home that night, but they hoped the professing Catholic would hear their songs.

The worshippers prayed for peace in Hong Kong, for the injustices in society, for injured and arrested protesters, and for the country’s leaders to walk in wisdom and God’s will. Around 9:30 p.m. they walked down the hill singing “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” an unofficial anthem of the city’s ongoing pro-democracy protests.

This was the sixth Saturday the group had worshipped outside the Government House. They planned one last worship session the following week.

As Hong Kong citizens lead what has become a monthslong protest for greater freedom and democracy in the region, Christians are navigating their role in a politically fraught movement. During the earlier, more peaceful protests, some pastors took a prominent place in the front lines, standing between protesters and police to defuse tensions. But as demonstrations have turned increasingly violent, with protesters defacing government property and police striking back with anti-riot measures, many churches have moved to the sidelines, playing supportive but peaceful roles: Churches have opened their doors to provide sanctuary for protesters, spoken out against police brutality, and held worship and prayer nights.

Kiran Ridley

Protesters gather for a rally in Victoria Park. (Kiran Ridley)

Some churches with closer ties to the government are reticent to speak out, and others have tried to stay neutral in the belief that Christianity and politics shouldn’t mix. Views on the protests are also split between generations—older people tend to be more pro-establishment—and some pastors worry about offending congregants.

The protests have broad support in Hong Kong, with more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s total population coming out for a massive protest on June 16. At stake is Hong Kong’s future: In the Sino-British Joint Declaration, China promised that after it reacquired Hong Kong in 1997, it would give the region a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. But year after year, China refused to let Hong Kong citizens vote for their own leaders. Today citizens can only vote for half of the seats in the legislature, while the other half and the chief executive are chosen by pro-Beijing interest groups. Hong Kongers of all stripes believe their government is increasingly beholden to Communist interests in Beijing, and worry about a full-scale Communist takeover.

If that happens, Christians in particular have much to lose. In mainland China, churches are enduring a fierce crackdown on their freedom to organize and worship openly. A similar fate could befall churches in Hong Kong should the Chinese Communist Party decide to strip the international financial hub of its autonomy and make it just another Chinese city.

Kiran Ridley

Protestors march in the pouring rain to protest against the extradition bill. (Kiran Ridley)

DARK CLOUDS ROLLED over Hong Kong on Sunday, Aug. 18, as thousands upon thousands of people dressed in black streamed into Victoria Park for a demonstration organized by the Civil Human Rights Front. As rain began pouring down in torrents, umbrellas popped open, transforming the park and the surrounding streets into a patchwork of color.

Hong Kong’s protests originally centered on a proposed extradition law that would see Hong Kong citizens sent to China to face trial. Today, protesters have five demands: the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill (Lam only suspended it), the withdrawal of the “riot” label for the June 12 protests, the release of all arrested protesters, an independent investigation into police actions, and universal suffrage.

The Hong Kong government has responded to the protests with heavy-handedness rather than dialogue, propelling even more people to take to the streets. Police have fired 1,800 rounds of tear gas and beaten unarmed protesters. One officer shot a beanbag round that severely injured a woman’s right eye. Protesters have also escalated the violence, throwing bricks and gasoline bombs and setting fires outside police stations.

The Aug. 18 march remained peaceful, however. Protesters of all ages marched through the wet streets chanting, “Five demands, not one less!” and “Hong Kong people, add oil!” (The latter phrase is an idiom that means, “Keep going!”) Organizers estimated 1.7 million people turned out to the march.

Along the protest route about a mile from Victoria Park stood Chinese Methodist Church, a large, triangular building whose doors were open to allow protesters a respite from the rain. The building buzzed with activity: Volunteers ushered people upstairs to use restrooms, and protesters sat on benches or on the floor, sometimes taking off their wet shoes to dry their feet. First aid medics set up a station at a table.

Yuen Tin-Yau, the church’s former pastor, said that for the past 15 years the church has opened its doors during large protests. He first got the idea in 2003 when he participated in a protest against a controversial anti-subversion law. The protesters came unprepared, and many hadn’t brought water, underestimating how long it would take for 500,000 people to exit Victoria Park. As Yuen marched past the Methodist church, he wished he could unlock the building and provide a place of rest for the protesters.

So at the next protest in 2004, Yuen was ready. The church started opening its doors to let protesters use the restroom, drink water, or just sit inside the air-conditioned building. The church held prayer meetings and provided spiritual care for protesters who came in. When police fired tear gas during the 2014 demonstrations known as the Umbrella Movement, Yuen opened the church and invited in first aid medics, who helped protesters wash the chemicals out of their eyes. Other times, the church provided sanctuary for protesters at pro-government marches.

Now about 50 other churches in Hong Kong are also opening their doors. On Facebook pages and WhatsApp group chats before protests, activists share lists of churches that plan to be open.

Kiran Ridley

Yuen Tin-Yau inside Chinese Methodist Church. (Kiran Ridley)

THE DAY BEFORE the large rally in Victoria Park, thousands of marchers flooded the streets of Hong Hum, a working-class neighborhood in Kowloon where Youngman Chan has pastored Abundant Life Christian Church for more than 30 years. The event organizers had received permission to hold a march until 5:30 p.m., and as the end time approached, a crowd of noisy protesters and media remained around Whampoa Station.

Some waved British colonial flags while others waved blue flags promoting Hong Kong independence (only a minor subsection of protesters support independence). Someone from the window of an apartment building threw a water balloon at the protesters, who responded by shining laser pointers at the window.

Chan, dressed in black, urged the crowd to disperse. “I belong to this community,” he yelled from the middle of the road. “I am a pastor of this community for over 30 years, and I don’t want to see any tear gas in my community tonight.” He then turned to the reporters: “Please, reporters, go! If you go, then the people will go.” Instead, reporters turned their cameras to Chan.

The pastor took off at a quick pace to his church, stopping on the way to tell protesters with riot gear to go home and keep things peaceful. Eggshells lay in front of a pro-Beijing lawmaker’s office where protesters had thrown eggs at a sign. At the entrance of a tea shop, owners had set a cardboard box full of free water bottles and energy drinks. The box came with a handwritten sign: “Five demands, not one less!”

“The role of the Christian is to maintain peace and do justice,” Chan said. “We try to love everyone; we don’t want to see anyone hurt by violence. Of course, we also want to say whoever has power must not abuse it, and the police so far have not been doing the right thing.”

Kiran Ridley

Youngman Chan on the streets of his neighborhood, Kowloon.  (Kiran Ridley)

Reaching his church, Chan strode upstairs to preach at the evening service.

Chan is part of the Pastoral Care Group, a network of pastors from various churches and denominations. The group formed during the Umbrella Movement protests to provide support and act as a peacemaker during tense demonstrations. During the June 12 protest, about 35 pastors in their clerical collars stood on the front lines, placing themselves between police in riot gear and angry protesters.

The clergy tried to reason with both sides, asking everyone to refrain from violence. To de-escalate the tension, they sang “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” Pastor Wu Chi-wai, another member of the group, said Christians gained the respect of people who had previously considered churches too otherworldly to care about their community.

“In Hong Kong when the people are oppressed, what is the spiritual response?” asked Pastor Wong Siu-yung, the head of the group. “We don’t think it’s just holding prayer meetings. We need to go to where the oppressed are and be with them. Their demands are also our demands.”

Yet as the violence has escalated since July, pastors see less space for them on the front lines: Angry protesters are less willing to listen to reason, and police respond more aggressively, indiscriminately firing tear gas at close range. So they have taken a step back, opening their churches to provide sanctuary and finding alternative ways to protest peacefully.

Kiran Ridley

Wong Siu-yung at his church in Mong Kok.  (Kiran Ridley)

After a violent day of protests on Aug. 11, the Pastoral Care Group sent out a message the next morning asking for pastors to convene. At a noon meeting at Chinese Methodist Church, 350 Hong Kong pastors showed up. At 3 p.m. they held a press conference denouncing police brutality and then marched to police headquarters, where they held a 48-hour vigil with prayer and worship. Wu said some of the police staffers encouraged them, while others called them “cockroaches” and “rubbish.”

Wong believes Hong Kong churches are undergoing a spiritual awakening as they’ve shifted their focus from church growth and programs to what is happening in Hong Kong society. The future of Hong Kong will affect churches as much as anyone. Before this year’s protests began, Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school at Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote about the dangers of the proposed extradition law: Even though the government said Hong Kong citizens would not be extradited for religious crimes, Chinese authorities have often used trumped-up economic crimes to arrest Christians.

This means that a Hong Kong Christian could be sent to stand trial in China for taking a short-term mission trip to mainland China or just for tithing at a mainland church. The extradition bill would be used to control and restrict religious liberties. 

“You can see that the situation of the mainland Chinese church will become Hong Kong’s in the near future,” Wong said. “Will Hong Kong seminaries need to have their curriculum approved by Chinese government? Will we need to have our sermons censored before we preach?”

Kiran Ridley

Wu Chi-wai walks among protesters.  (Kiran Ridley)

SOME CHURCHES HAVE TAKEN a more pro-establishment stance. They stress that violence on both sides should be condemned, and they believe the protesters’ actions have disrupted Hong Kong’s stability and economic prosperity. They point to Romans 13, which tells Christians to obey authorities, and Matthew 5:44, which tells them to love their enemies.

One example: the Anglican Church. Historically, it has run many of the schools and social services in Hong Kong. That has led to a close relationship between the church and the Hong Kong government. During the Umbrella Movement, Archbishop Paul Kwong caught flak for preaching that pro-democracy advocates should stay silent the way Jesus remained silent before His crucifixion. Kwong is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body.

The Anglican Church had previously stated its support of the extradition bill, saying that offenders must be brought to justice by whatever means necessary. Kwong later issued a letter criticizing the government for “ignoring the real worries and fears among citizens.” More recently, Kwong called on both sides to stay calm and not defy the law.

Yet Kenny Ng, a member of the Anglican Church who is in his 30s, said the church’s statements are worded just like the government’s official statements. He and a group of other young Anglicans organized meetings for members of the church to pray and air their grievances.

On a recent Friday night, about 50 Anglican Church members sat in a circle inside a church on Hong Kong Island to share their thoughts about the Anglican Church’s response to the protests. Some lifelong churchgoers cried as they described their feelings of hurt and betrayal. Some said they were thinking of leaving the church.

“We just want the church to allow for political subjects to be discussed,” Ng said. “The church hasn’t responded to society well: It’s not just a matter of being pro-democracy or not, it’s about your conscience, what you feel is right.”

Kiran Ridley

Francis Yip at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s divinity school. (Kiran Ridley)

HOW THE PROTESTS WILL END is unclear. Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, claimed the violent acts of “Hong Kong’s radical demonstrators” show “signs of terrorism.” Chinese officials claim the United States and other Western countries are behind the protests, and official media show video clips of the People’s Armed Police performing drills and exercises in the neighboring city of Shenzhen. Many believe Chinese leaders will take some sort of action before Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. 

Francis Yip, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s divinity school, doesn’t think a Tiananmen Square–style military takeover of Hong Kong is likely: Unlike in 1989, today’s world is highly interconnected, with cell phone videos able to quickly broadcast to the world what is happening. When unrest hits regions inside mainland China, the government typically shuts down the internet—but that is unlikely to happen in an international financial hub like Hong Kong.

What’s more probable, Yip said, is an escalation of government-sanctioned violence meant to create an atmosphere of fear. He pointed to the July 21 attack at the Yuen Long subway station, where a mob of suspected triad gang members in white shirts beat protesters and bystanders while police looked the other way. Yip believes the goal was to “terrify people so they will say, ‘Let’s calm down and not go out on the streets.’”

(Yip also mentioned that Beijing could resort to a legal maneuver: The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s governing document, states that if the Hong Kong government is facing political turmoil it cannot contain, China can apply its own laws in Hong Kong.)

Most Hong Kong citizens I spoke to viewed the future pessimistically. One theology student involved in the protests said, “I would rather die as a Hong Konger with freedom than become a submissive [Chinese] citizen.”

Where can the Hong Kong people find hope?

Wong, the Pastoral Care Group leader, has been preaching about hope from the pulpit. But for the past few weeks, he’s first had to ask whether he has hope himself. Recently he’s been preaching from the book of Ezra, and said he’s found comfort in the Word of God: Even though God planned to rebuild the Temple, in the book of Ezra, Chapter 4, opposition caused construction to stall for 17 years. Yet God remained in control, even if things didn’t happen within man’s time frame.

Wong related that story to Hong Kong’s struggles. Even though man may view the Chinese Communist Party as an unstoppable force, God is still in control. The Communist Party can’t stop God’s will for Hong Kong: “We can wait a minute or 17 years, but it’s just a yellow light. Afterward will come a green light when we see God’s will come to pass. This is our greatest hope.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.