Hong Kong’s protest pastors: as violence escalates, churches struggle to find a place between religion and politics

South China Morning Post 發布於 2019年11月16日03:11 • Josephine Ma josephine.ma@scmp.com
  • Church workers at front lines try to keep the peace between protesters and police
  • Tension rises as Christians debate churches' role in sheltering protesters
Some church workers are appearing regularly at the protest front lines to be a buffer between police and demonstrators. Photo: Yeung Kwan

For Reverend Yeung Kwan, Sunday usually means wearing his clerical collar, preaching at services, teaching Sunday school, and, sometimes, seeing those who need marriage counselling.

For the past five months, the senior pastor of the Hong Kong Reformed Presbyterian Hon Wah Covenant Church in Tsuen Wan has done all that. And considerably more.

On Sunday afternoons, Yeung, 50, swaps his collar for a frontline photographer's vest, packs his camera, goggles and breathing mask and sets off for flashpoints where intense clashes are taking place between police and protesters.

He has been at the protests almost every weekend, capturing images for media outlets and a Facebook page he set up recently with other Christian photographers.

"Keeping a record is so important," says Yeung, one of the few photographers who took pictures of a woman hit in the eye by a projectile on August 11, an incident which sparked a furore over alleged police brutality.

A photo Reverend Yeung Kwan took during a protest at Central.

There were about 884,000 Protestants and Catholics in Hong Kong in 2016, according to government estimates. They are about 12 per cent of Hong Kong's total population of 7.5 million.

Their presence has been unmistakable at the ongoing anti-government protests, now in their sixth month.

Some church workers, wearing helmets and vests bearing the word "Pastors", have appeared regularly at the front line, trying to be a buffer between police and protesters. This is something not seen in the Occupy protests in 2014.

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The pastors have been seen speaking to protesters and police officers, appealing to them to stay calm. Some remain on standby to help passers-by, such as elderly people trying to find their way home when public transport is disrupted.

Many religious leaders also attend peaceful protests in their personal capacity.

From as early as May, many churches and Christian organisations appealed to the government to withdraw the extradition bill which triggered the protests because of fears it would result in fugitives being sent to mainland China, among jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no exchange arrangement.

The Baptist Convention issued a rare statement condemning the bill in June, and followed up with a second calling it "evil in nature". Many Christians involved in spreading the faith were concerned that the bill threatened their mainland missionary work.

The bill was formally withdrawn last month.

Reverend Yeung Kwan, a pastor, is also a frontline photographer of the Hong Kong protests. Photo: Josephine Ma

Violence sparks disagreements

The Christian presence at the protests was evident right from June, when demonstrations against the bill began peacefully.

Protestants and Catholics alike were seen leading the crowds in singing the hymn "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord", which for a while was an anthem of the movement and seemed to have a pacifying effect on protesters and police.

The hymn-singing faded out as the protests turned increasingly violent and police responded by firing tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd-dispersal methods. A new, secular, protest anthem, "Glory to Hong Kong", filled the air, along with the chant: "Five demands, not one less!"

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Although the extradition bill was withdrawn, the protesters have four other demands, for a commission of inquiry to look into allegations of police brutality; an end to referring to protesters as rioters; amnesty for all protesters who have been arrested; and universal suffrage.

Christians have remained involved, but many church leaders and members of their flock " including those who support peaceful rallies " are disturbed by the escalating violence.

There is an ongoing debate, including over the WhatsApp messaging service, between Christians who support protesters and those who question whether it is right to tolerate vandalism and violence by radical protesters.

After more than a century of providing Hong Kong with religious, educational, medical and social services, churches find themselves grappling with defining their role in politics.

Some disenchanted young Christians are said to have stopped attending churches that are reluctant to discuss politics. Churches that sympathise with protesters, as well as those who support the authorities and police, have lost members too.

The increasing violence has affected pastors and those who have been going to the protests, hoping to be peacemakers. Photo: Yeung Kwan

The increasing violence has affected pastors and those who have been going to the protests, hoping to be peacemakers.

Reverend Wong Siu-yung, 45,pastor-in-charge of the Church of Livingstonesin Mong Kok, recalls what happened on July 21, when he was leading a team of pastors at Sheung Wan, where protesters had gathered outside the Central Liaison Office.

His group tried to get people to stay calm, but did not succeed for long.

"It became clear that it was not realistic, because we could only delay the clashes for less than 30 minutes," Wong says. "Pastors were getting hurt too."

He stopped leading the group after that, although he continues to go on his own to speak to those at the front line.

Some of the other pastors went on to join Protect the Children, a group of social workers, church workers and elderly people who go to protest venues and try to stay between police and young protesters.

Reverend Wong Siu-Yung goes to protest front lines to speak to people. Photo: Josephine Ma

Good Samaritans shielding rioters?

An issue that turned up along the way is whether churches should shelter protesters fleeing from police, and this has left Christians divided.

Those who say yes believe it is a way for Christians to put their faith into action by being "good Samaritans" taking in those in need. Those against the idea say they do not want churches "shielding rioters".

The debate has become common among church workers, says Reverend Kwok Man-chee, 60, chairman of the Evangelical Free Church of China, which has 35,000 members and runs more than 50 churches, a college, hospital and seminary.

Reverend Yuen Tin-yau says people don't just want services, but also want to build a fair and righteous society. Photo: Josephine Ma

"I have been personally involved in resolving disputes," he says.

Some churches which have taken in protesters, including the Chinese Methodist Church, have been criticised by mainland media for sheltering "violent rioters".

Mong Kok pastor Wong says there used to be a list on the social media informing protesters of churches providing "rest stations", but it is no longer available.

Worsening levels of violence has supporters questioning radical actions

"But does that mean the number of churches that open their doors is smaller? I don't think that is the case." he says. Most are just providing shelter quietly.

Wong says something unusual happened recently at his church and some others. Two men, both mainlanders, turned up at the Sunday services, took pictures and left soon after the services began.

This had never happened before, he says.

On November 11, the Catholic Church found itself on the spot when police entered the Holy Cross Church in Sai Wan Ho,to arrest protesters taking shelter after violent clashes in the area.

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which oversees 40 churches, 33 chapels, and 27 halls, issued a statement expressing regret about the incident, and said that unlike in the past, its churches could no longer protect people who seek refuge.

Debate over church's role

Hong Kong's churches have traditionally kept out of the political arena, focusing instead on serving society's religious and social needs. Protestant churches run three tertiary colleges, seven hospitals, 180 middle schools, 199 primary schools and 260 kindergartens while the Catholics run 248 schools and six hospitals, according to the 2017 Hong Kong yearbook and Catholic diocese website respectively.

Churches have been criticised in the past, especially by non-believers and young people, for being out of touch with politics and society.

The debate over church, politics and whether to support civil disobedience was stirred by 2014's umbrella movement. Several leaders of the movement, including pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man as well as retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming, are Christians, although their involvement is not related to the churches they attend.

Many Christians now find themselves questioning the traditional line between church and politics.

"Society has changed. People are getting richer and they don't just want services. They want to build a fair and righteous society, and this is particularly what the young generation wants," says Reverend Yuen Tin-yau, 68, former president of the city's Methodist Church and former chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council.

"But Hong Kong churches respond to this aspect very slowly, they don't know what to do."

Reverend Lo Hing Choi, president of the Baptist Convention, which has 80,000 members in Hong Kong, says Christians began to hold forums exploring the relations between churches and politics in recent years.

In September, he met Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor with leaders of two other major protestant groups " the Evangelical Free Church and the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

Lo says he told Lam, who is a Catholic, that he was concerned about the excessive use of force by police.

"Many people said, 'Why don't you condemn the young people also?' My answer is, let's first set up an independent commission to find out the causes of their actions," he says.

"We have to understand the reasons. Just saying they are wrong will not solve the problem. It does not mean we are encouraging them to use violence."

But others in the Christian fold feel churches should take a stronger position against violence.

Pastor Andrew Ho Po-sang, 62, executive director of Elim Development Ltd, which runs Christian bookstores and a publishing company, says he loves young people, but pastors need to tell young people that violence will not achieve anything, and nor will political systems like democracy solve all problems.

"The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart, not political systems," he says, meaning it is more important to change people, rather than the system.

Pastor-photographer Yeung, meanwhile, has set up a Facebook page featuring photographs from the protest front line by a group of Christian and pastor photographers. The page, White Night, has more than 12,000 followers.

"The fourth estate is so important. Without it, Hong Kong will be in a chilly winter," Yeung says.

While he and other Christians have made their presence felt in the protests, Christian leaders say the churches have been passive in responding to the crisis.

Reverend Lo Hing Choi, president of the Baptist Convention, which has 80,000 members in Hong Kong, says Christians began to hold forums exploring the relations between churches and politics in recent years. Photo: Josephine Ma

"I don't see anything showing Hong Kong churches leading the movement," says Kwok, of the Evangelical Free Church.

The important role of churches is to give hope to Hong Kong, he says, adding that he has recently witnessed a rare scene which moved him.

"A young couple who are teachers in high schools came to talk to me after the Sunday service," he recalls.

"They were so heartbroken after seeing students being beaten by the police. At that very moment, a senior police officer and his wife, who were in the congregation, happened to pass by, so I invited them to pray together. As we prayed, we all wept.

"That is what churches should be," he says. "It is not about trying to convince you with my political views."

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