China has passed a controversial new security law which many critics say will erode the democratic freedoms enjoyed by those living in Hong Kong.
The law, signed off by China's National People’s Congress Standing Committee on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the city's handover to China from British rule, will make it easier for China to penalise pro-democracy protesters by slapping them with terrorism charges and handing out lengthy prison sentences.
As part of the new law, Beijing will establish a new security office in Hong Kong, with law enforcement personnel answering to the central Chinese government, not the local authorities. The law also stipulates that crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison and that certain criminals will be subject to extradition for trial.
Many are concerned that the new restrictions could be devastating for the strong Christian community, with pastors and churchgoers across the region publically denouncing Beijing's bold move.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide explained: "The criminalisation of acts categorised as ‘subversion’ and ‘foreign collusion’ could potentially endanger the right to freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong.
"In Mainland China, religious leaders and lawyers who defend freedom of religion or belief have been charged under similar terms such as ‘inciting to subvert state power’, including Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church. In addition, ‘national security’ has long been used as a pretext for heavy restrictions on ethnic and religious minorities such as Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists."
In a statement, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioner Gary Bauer said: “Hong Kong has long been living proof that religious freedom and Chinese culture can coexist in harmony—no matter what the Communist Party claims. This new national security legislation would potentially expand the Chinese Communist Party’s war on faith in the mainland to hundreds of thousands of believers in Hong Kong.”
Outspoken China critic, Cardinal Joseph Zen, said he had "no confidence” in religious freedom being protected under the new security law, adding that the new measures were "not only against the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, but also the basic law [of Hong Kong]".
Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai said that the new law "spells the death knell for Hong Kong" while Joshua Wong, a leading pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, simply tweeted:
"I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe." (Psalm 23:4)
Home Secretary Priti Patel reaffirmed the government's commitment to allow eligible Hong Kong citizens free passage to take up residence in the United Kingdom, tweeting: "Sad day for Hong Kong. China's decision to enact this legislation constitutes a clear & serious breach of the Joint Declaration. UK will not look the other way. We will uphold our historic responsibilities & we will proceed to honour our commitment to those holding BNO status."
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new laws constitute a "clear and serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration" that "violates Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong basic law".
In response to the law's passing, CSW’s chief executive Mervyn Thomas said: “We are dismayed by the passing of a law which is at odds with Hong Kong’s long-standing status as a city based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. There are widespread fears that this law could seriously threaten religious freedom and other human rights for the city’s residents, with a chilling effect on civil society.
"The Chinese government is responsible for some of most serious human rights violations in the world today. We echo the recommendations made by 50 UN Independent Experts calling on the UN Human Rights Council to take urgent action to monitor human rights violations in China, including Hong Kong. We further call on the international community to stand with everyone in Hong Kong – including religious communities and civil society groups – peacefully advocating for human rights and rule of law. In the face of these unprecedented challenges, we must look for new ways to support these courageous individuals.”