Asian Bishops Concerned Over the Impact of China’s New National Security Law on Religious Freedom

As China began rolling back the administrative autonomy of Hong Kong with its new national security law, one of Asia’s leading Catholic prelates expressed apprehension about the ultimate impact of this action on religious freedom.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon. Photo courtesy of Bitter Winter)
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon (Photo courtesy of Bitter Winter)

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, the city previously known as Rangoon, issued an appeal in a July 1 letter on behalf of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), an organization of 19 Catholic bishops of which he is president. 

China’s legislature imposed a new national security law June 30 on the eve of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British colonial rule. The law imposes penalties of up to life imprisonment for violations of national security and empowers Beijing to deploy state security agencies in Hong Kong, significantly reversing freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong under the Basic Law signed between Britain and China during Hong Kong’s handover of power.

“We have learned from heavy experience that wherever freedom as a whole is undermined, freedom of religion or belief—sooner or later—is affected,” wrote Cardinal Bo.

While acknowledging that China’s national security law “is not in itself wrong,” and that “every country has a right to legislate to safeguard national security,” Cardinal Bo emphasized that “such legislation should be balanced with protection of human rights, human dignity and basic freedoms.”

“I am concerned that the law poses a threat to basic freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong,” wrote Cardinal Bo, a longtime proponent of religious and social freedoms in his native country. “This legislation potentially undermines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media freedom and academic freedom.”

“Even if freedom of worship in Hong Kong is not directly or immediately affected,” his letter states, “the new security law and its broad criminalization of ‘subversion,’ ‘secession’ and ‘colluding with foreign political forces’ could result, for example, in the monitoring of religious preaching, the criminalization of candle-lit prayer vigils, and the harassment of places of worship that offer sanctuary or sustenance to protesters. It is my prayer that this law will not give the government license to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations and the services they provide to the general public.”

Under the new law, “vocal Hong Kong clergy who have been supportive of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, such as Cardinal Joseph Zen and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, could be extradited to mainland China to be tried, since Beijing considers them threats to the regime,” according to a June 21 article in the International Christian Concern.

In its 2020 annual report, released April 28, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent federal government watchdog within the U.S. State Department, listed China among 14 countries, including Burma, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for “engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.”


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freedom of religion Hong Kong Cardinal Charles Maung Bo