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Religion on the Occupy Central front line puts Faith into Practice

Written by Jennifer Ngo
October 28, 2014

Christians, in pursuing equality and justice, have long been part of the city's fight for freedom

In Mong Kok, Taoist god of war Guan Yu sits in an impressive makeshift temple within the protest site; sharing the spiritual space is a chapel where Christians can pray and a place where Buddhist chants are played through a speaker.

The role of religion in the pro-democracy protests transcends figurines at protest sites. A joint statement signed by leaders of Hong Kong's six biggest religions on October 15, offers to serve as middlemen between the government and people.

The religious leaders' gesture was genuine and simple - to curb violence and bridge differences for the good of the city. Although the offer was not taken up, it does highlight the possible role of the city's religious leaders in creating dialogue.

Christianity in particular has long been entwined with Hong Kong's fight for freedom and genuine democracy, and Christians can be seen at all three protest sites, holding prayer services and Catholic mass, and offering counselling and prayer.

"In politics, there is no neutrality. Having no opinion is an opinion. And more often than not, having no opinion would be taken as support and leverage for the ruling group," said the Reverend Yuen Tin-yau, president of the city's Methodist Church and chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council.

"Equality and justice are core teachings in Christianity and for that reason Christians tend to support democratic development ... It shouldn't be a small group of people controlling the power to manage society," said Yuen, who admitted that opinions on the movement were diverse within the community.

The Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and Benny Tai Yiu-ting - two of the three Occupy Central co-founders - are Christians, as is Scholarism leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung.

Of the six signatories of the religious leaders' statement, Yuen and Catholic Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing responded to the Post's inquiries, while the Confucius Academy and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association did not. The Hong Kong Taoist Association said its chairman was out of town and there was no one else to answer inquiries, while the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association said they had "nothing to do with the statement".

Justin Tse, a social geographer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, conducted extensive research on the relationship of Christians to civil disobedience in Hong Kong including the "Umbrella Movement". He said Christian influence went beyond the initial participation of believers.

"This is not to say that official church institutions are deeply involved," he wrote in an email. "Instead, what it means is that Hong Kong people have been so deeply influenced by Christianity through a variety of civil society channels - schools, media, social services - that they are able to practice and articulate their activism in Christian terms."

Calls made by official church bodies may be modest, while individual clergy or parishes showed more support, he said.

The Hong Kong Christian Council has released various statements over the past three weeks, including urging the government to listen to the "clear message Hongkongers and Hong Kong students are voicing", as well as condemning excessive force by the police.

The council also expressed "deep disappointment and concern about the [National People's Congress] decision" on electoral reform, calling it "a regression of the existing election system and therefore of democracy".

Ha said Catholicism was based around the idea that God loved people and in God people had value and equality, which may lead to a stronger thirst for freedom and democracy. But rules of peace and nonviolence must apply in any fight for freedom, he added.

Ha reaffirmed that the Catholic Church allowed for the freedom of differences and diverse opinions. "We are not a political group - we are a religious one," he said. "On such matters we have to stand on neutral grounds."

In Admiralty, Pastor Wu Chi-wai has led prayer meetings at 7pm every day since the movement started. Dozens of people would also come to the tent set up for counselling and prayer, sometimes just to chat, he said.

"We want to be part of that emotional support for students or anyone who needs it here," he said, indicating that dozens of volunteers from a network of churches kept the tent open.

"The [political] issues won't be going away any time soon, and as Christians and participants of society I believe we have much to give."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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