New Hong Kong reporting law raises concerns about Catholic seal of confession

A new law in Hong Kong raises fears of a deterioration of human and religious rights in China's special administrative region. Under the recently passed legislation – known as Article 23 – members of the clergy could be prosecuted for not reporting “treasonous” acts to the police if they hear subversive words against the government during a confession.

Before the law was approved in March, 16 international experts on religious freedom released a joint statement expressing “deep and serious concerns” about the implications of the rule. The group is concerned that Article 23 directly threatens religious freedom, especially the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, in the Roman Catholic Church.

Although the Diocese of Hong Kong replied that the law “will not change the confidential nature of the Church's Confession,” it also said it “recognizes that citizens have an obligation to ensure national security,” giving little reassurance to the 392,000 Catholics it serves.

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For the third year in a row, the Diocese of Hong Kong had to cancel a vigil mass to celebrate the 1989 Tiananmen protests and massacre in China, fearing that they may violate the new law. Priests did not mention government-related issues during mass, for fear of being reported by parishioners.

A a report published by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation also argues that religious freedom is deteriorating in the region and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is oppressing people of faith and institutions in several ways.

Religious leaders are expected to promote CCP priorities, sermons should require church members to adhere to socialist values ​​and religious schools should integrate a national identity-based curriculum.

“The Sinicization of religion has a pretty aggressive effect on the church,” said Frances Hui, author of the report and a Catholic activist. “Religious freedom is an indispensable part of freedom of speech. Wherever the religious freedom of a place is threatened, we must pay attention.

Each of the six major religious groups (Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist) holds positions on the Electoral Commission of Hong Kong, allowing them to participate politically. Using this crucial role, the government of Hong Kong controls religion through leading organizations of these groups. After the implementation of Article 23, these six organizations were in close contact with the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government, which arranges visits to mainland China to discuss the Sinification of religion.

The Hong Kong Diocese has already requested that all priests and nuns visit Beijing. The first group, mostly educators, visited last September. During his 2023 China trip, Cardinal Bishop of Hong Kong Stephen Chow did not mention human rights or religious freedom concerns, nor did he visit any faithful Chinese underground churches.

“Hong Kong is implementing Sinicization now, which means we [Hong Kong] should be independent of Western influence,” said Eric Lai, a research fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “This is simply indoctrinating the CCP ideology, not improving the inculcation of religion as we understand it.”

Lai also believes that eventually the Hong Kong government will establish a patriotic association for all major religions, as China has done.

“So, they [China] can tame religious leaders who will work closely with the government, or use lay people to fight against the clergy,” he said.


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