Pope appoints new Hong Kong bishop amid tensions over city freedoms


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Pope Francis celebrates Mass for the community of Myanmar faithful residing in Rome, Vatican City, May 16, 2021. REUTERS / Remo Casilli / Pool

Pope Francis on Monday appointed a new bishop of Hong Kong, a long-delayed appointment that comes amid Sino-Vatican friction and growing West concern over human rights in the global financial center.

Stephen Chow, 61, head of the Hong Kong Jesuit Order, will replace Cardinal John Tong, who served as guardian after the death of former bishop Michael Yeung in January 2019.

Hong Kong clerics familiar with the situation have said the new bishop must ease tensions amid a herd divided between those who want the diocese to do more to defend Hong Kong’s declining freedoms and others, including including some powerful establishment figures who want a less confrontational approach.

The former British colony was for decades a strong Catholic beachhead on the edge of mainland China under the officially atheist regime of the Communist Party.

Many senior Hong Kong government and business officials are Catholic, including city leader Carrie Lam, as well as opposition activists, such as media mogul Jimmy Lai, who was recently detained under a new national security law as China clamps down on dissent. . Read more

Chow’s appointment follows two failed attempts to fill the post. The potential former candidates were seen as too close to Beijing for the comfort of many local Catholics, or potentially unacceptable to mainland officials due to their importance during the months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests that rocked the city throughout. throughout 2019.

Senior clerics have said Chow represents an apparent middle-of-the-road approach. With American degrees and a long experience of supervising Catholic schools in the city, he has extensive contacts both in the church and in the community at large.

Chow could not be reached for comment.

“THE PRESSURE IS INTENSE”

“He’s going to need all of his broad contacts to bridge some deep divisions,” said a seasoned clergyman familiar with the search for the new bishop.

“The safety law has made the job much more delicate and the pressure is intense.”

Another senior cleric familiar with the situation said Chow was also to serve as an unofficial bridge between the Holy See and the Chinese leadership.

Despite a tense history and the two states having no formal diplomatic relations, Beijing and the Vatican extended an interim agreement last September on the appointment of bishops in mainland China for two more years.

Reuters reported in December of growing concerns among senior Hong Kong clerics that Beijing was trying to expand its control over the diocese of Hong Kong, in part by influencing the choice of the city’s next bishop.

Beijing, they said, was seeking to apply an agreement to Hong Kong that gives the Chinese government a meaningful voice in appointing prelates on the mainland.

Vatican officials say the deal – the full text of which remains secret – was never meant to cover Hong Kong given its semi-autonomous status since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

“In the absence of formal ties and concerns at the Vatican over the deal, the next bishop will play a key role in the years to come to allay suspicion on both sides, as well as to protect his flock,” said a cleric familiar with finding a new bishop.

Freewheeling Hong Kong returned to China with the guarantee of continuous freedoms. Pro-democracy activists say these freedoms are curtailed by Beijing, especially with the use of the National Security Law.

China denies the accusation.

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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