The religious undercurrent in Hong Kong's protests

Hong Kong's churches are playing a discreet role in the city's protests and some are even citing Christian values as inspiration in the fight.

Wall Street Journal

The protests now roiling Hong Kong are about democracy. But there is an undercurrent of another, much older tension: Between Christianity and Communist China.

Hong Kong's churches are playing a quiet but important role in the city's protests, offering food and shelter to demonstrators, with some organisers and supporters citing Christian values as inspiration in their fight.

At least three of the founders of the main protest groups are Christians, including the 17-year-old leader of a student group and two of the three heads of Occupy Central. One of the group's founders is a minister and the city's former Catholic bishop is a vocal supporter.

Churches are deeply embedded into the fabric of Hong Kong society, in contrast to mainland China, where religion is strictly controlled. The Catholic Church established a foothold in the former colony in 1841, the very year that the British wrested control of Hong Kong island from China, with other denominations following soon after. Christian institutions have since become part of Hong Kong's civil sensibility.

While the protests are specifically for democratic elections in Hong Kong, some see a broader struggle to protect that culture from China's communist government as it increases its influence on the city. Christianity has been a visible element of the demonstrations, with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street.

On the other side, some of Hong Kong's top government officials and business leaders are also Christian, including No. 2 official Carrie Lam and former chief executive Donald Tsang, who are both Catholics.

The fight for democracy is "a question of the whole culture, the whole way of living, in this our city," said Cardinal Joseph Zen, who retired as head of Hong Kong's Catholic flock in 2009.

Beijing's influence through Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying "brings to Hong Kong the whole culture which is now reigning in China, a culture of falsity, of dishonesty, a lack of spiritual values," said Cardinal Zen, sitting in the cool interior of a church seminary. "We can see that it is coming, so we have to resist."

Some see the gap between Christians and the Chinese government as unbridgeable. "Christians, by definition, don't trust the communists. The communists suppress Christians wherever they are," said Joseph Chan, a political-science professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong and a supporter of the protesters.

Hong Kong's major church organisations have taken largely neutral stances toward the Occupy Central movement. The leader of the Catholic Church, Cardinal John Tong, issued a brief statement Monday urging the Hong Kong government to exercise "restraint in deployment of force" and telling protesters to be "calm" in voicing their grievances. A spokesperson for the city's Anglican Church said in July that it wouldn't encourage its parishioners to break the law.

But some churches are providing aid to protesters. Wu Chi-wai, pastor of Hong Kong's Christian & Missionary Alliance Church, estimates that more than half of the roughly 1,400 Protestant churches in Hong Kong have been organising ad hoc groups to help the movement. "We have prayers and attendees at sites singing hymns like they would on Christmas Eve," Pastor Wu said.

Vine Church, home to a multinational congregation of about 1,500 people, has been providing first aid, food and refuge to protesters at its Wan Chai headquarters since Tuesday evening. "We're not taking a political stance. We're here to serve the people of Hong Kong," said senior pastor Andrew Gardener, who says his church has been praying for peace in the city.

At the main protest site Thursday, 50-year-old IT consultant Alex Cheng was on a 24-hour fast with several other Christians. Cheng said he had seen a few Christian groups nearby, although most kept a low profile. Next to him, six friends held hands in silent prayer, as passersby stopped to read their signs, one of which was a prayer for God to "move the government to listen."

The involvement of Protestants and Catholics in Hong Kong's protest movement is an added concern for Beijing, which on the mainland has put in place an elaborate bureaucracy of agencies and state-approved religious bodies to monitor and control religious groups.

Hong Kong churches have long tried to spread Christianity in China. Protestant pastors based in Hong Kong have helped propagate the evangelical brands of Christianity that have alarmed the Chinese leadership in Beijing with their fast growth.

About 480,000 Protestants and 363,000 Catholics live in Hong Kong, a city of about 7.2 million, according to government figures from 2013. Buddhists and Taoists make up the vast majority of the city, the government says. Many Hongkongers have been educated through large networks of Catholic and Protestant schools.

That includes some protest leaders. Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old who is a public face of the rallies, was educated at one of the top Protestant-backed private schools in the city. Now in college, Wong was a 15-year-old student at United Christian College (Kowloon East) in 2012, when he led a movement called Scholarism that defeated the Hong Kong government's plan to introduce patriotic education classes in schools.

Occupy Central leader Chu Yiu-ming is a Baptist minister, while founder Benny Tai is also a Christian. On Thursday, Tai declined to discuss his faith in detail, but he did call himself a "part time theologian" and said he could "write a thesis" on the topic of Christianity and the protests. "My faith is in the streets," Tai added.

Wendy Lo, 21, was born in China's Guangdong province but grew up in Hong Kong and became Christian after attending an Evangelical secondary school. The University of Hong Kong linguistics major says her bible study group this past weekend discussed how to interpret a biblical story in light of the protest movement. The chapter they read was about Queen Esther daring to approach the king without his permission.

"The story made me think about speaking up for myself," said Lo. "If Hong Kong residents don't speak up for ourselves, who will?"

On Thursday night, church volunteers handed sandwiches to protesters, wrapped and sealed with a heart-shaped sticker reading "Jesus loves you."

 -- Chao Deng, Charles Hutzler, Joanne Chiu, Nisha Gopalan, Jason Chow and Isabella Steger contributed to this article.

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