By Mark Michael

The House of Bishops of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (HKSKH) issued a pastoral letter on August 8 calling the people of Hong Kong to kindness and dialogue in response to escalating violence between pro-democracy demonstrators and police. Tensions, the three bishops say, “permeated the city, causing anxiety and pain.” This is the bishops’ third missive issued in response to the intensifying crisis, which is now in its fifth month.

The bishops wrote, “We need to remember that benevolent thoughts come from God while wicked intentions originate in the ‘evil one,’ Satan. In these times, we all need to pray to God for mercy and forgive one another.  When conflicts arise between us, people from both sides need to respect the other party, listen, communicate, and build mutual trust.”

The HKSKH is a member province of the Anglican Communion. The triennial gathering of the Anglican Consultative Council was held in the city last April, just a few weeks after protests began.  The province’s archbishop, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong, is the chair of the ACC.  He also announced today his retirement from office in January, 2021.

According to reports from BBC News, tens of thousands of Hong Kong protestors took to the street over the weekend, and some are alleged to have used slingshots and petrol bombs. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds on Sunday, and were videoed beating protestors with batons. An image of a young woman with a bloodied eye, supposedly a victim of police brutality, went viral on social media in the city on Monday.

Police say they have obtained a water cannon to use in quelling the crowds that are expected to mass again next weekend. The busy Hong Kong International Airport was forced to cancel over 250 departing flights on Monday and Tuesday after demonstrators occupied the building. The Beijing government has denounced the mostly young protestors, terming them “terrorists.”

The protests arose in response to the now-suspended Extradition Bill, which would have allowed the deportation of those accused of crimes to the mainland, where the court system is controlled by the Communist Party. Protesters say they fear the law could be used to punish political dissidents, and to limit the Western-style freedoms that are the city’s unique heritage in an increasingly authoritarian Chinese state.  They are now calling for a full withdrawal of the bill and direct elections of of all the city’s Legislative Council and its Beijing-appointed executive.

The Hong Kong bishops insist in their pastoral letter that Christians should work for peace and that the church must avoid taking sides in the current conflict. “In the current social atmosphere, we tend to adopt a confrontational approach in response to political issues. If the Church, too, takes this approach, how are we different from the rest of the world? We are one family; can we try to stand in each other’s shoes and understand one another’s position?”

Their rhetoric echoes that of an op ed by Paul Yip, a University of Hong Kong sociologist, in Monday’s edition of The South China Morning Post.  Yip describes the protest as unmasking a deep generational divide among Hong Kong’s people, and like the bishops, he laments the decline of mutual trust and respect between those of opposing political convictions. He too calls for tolerance and compassion, and urges the involvement of mediators to defuse the tensions and to search for a “win-win solution.”

Yip concludes with an appeal to mutual engagement in keeping with the city’s unique traditions: “I believe the people of Hong Kong can work together to uphold the city’s humanitarian values, impartiality and professionalism. Let’s not destroy the past we have, but instead protect and preserve Hong Kong’s future. We would not like to see Hong Kong become a guerilla war zone. That certainly would not be in anyone’s best interests.”

The bishops’ August 8 pastoral letter is consistent with Archbishop Kwong’s condemnation of the first outbreak of violence between police and protestors on June 12.  He told Echo, the HKSHK’s news agency, that he believes “that violent conflict not only causes harm to oneself and to others, but also social disorder, and this is not something the majority of the public would like to see.”

“The government and the opposition,” Kwong said then, “should slow down and seek a common path to resolve the controversies.”

The House of Bishops also criticized a July 1 incident in which protesters stormed through the city’s legislative hall, smashing its windows and raising the British colonial flag in its central chamber. “We were incredibly saddened,” the bishops wrote, “when a group of protestors smashed their way into the Legislative Council Building and vandalized it, because in Hong Kong, these acts of violence are unacceptable, and we cannot make requests to be heard through destructive behavior.”

Archbishop Kwong has, however, celebrated non-violent expressions of opposition to the Extradition Bill, including a massive protest march on June 9, which sponsors say drew a million participants. In his June 17 Echo interview, Kwong said, “Hong Kong has always respected the right of all segments of society to express their views and stances in a rational, peaceful, and lawful manner. And the peaceful march on 9 June was a good example of this convention.”

The first word on the current protests from the House of Bishops expressed warm support for the mostly young pro-democracy activists, who were then refraining from violence. The bishops wrote on June 18, “We are pleased with the innocent heart of most youth, who are willing to stand up for their ideals, to fight for the freedom that they cherish, and to face with courage against external threats; we also admire their determination to keep peace, rationality, mutual assistance and the spirit of doing the undoable. We should be proud of these qualities displayed by them. That is the right spirit that belongs not only to our youth but all Hong Kong citizens.”

The bishops’ first pastoral letter also criticized the Hong Kong government’s violent response to the protests with a directness that has been studiously avoided by the church leaders since: “The whole incident,” they said of the first violent police response, “was caused by the government’s ignoring of the real worries and fears among the citizens. It did not pick up the voice of the citizens on time because it focused solely on amendments to the legislation. Such narrow focusing results in the absoluteness of the necessity of the amendments, which leads to stubbornness, partiality and bias.”