Every day after the first march against the government’s extradition bill on June 9, there was a group of Christians singing and praying outside the Legislative Council building. What were they praying for and what has it got to do with the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Bill?

At the second big march on June 16, there was a large Christian presence and protesters had taken up one of the songs which had reverberated around at the first series of prayer meetings: “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” This now seems to be a theme song for the protest regardless of religious background.

China extradition protest
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The original series of prayer meetings had been called because there was a sense that a critical issue was at stake and that it required not just political opinions and public demonstrations, important as they are, but divine intervention, so they initially called for 72 hours of prayer. Pray meetings to lift up the current situation in Hong Kong are still continuing at various locations throughout the city.

Historically, the established protestant church in Hong Kong has been rather passive when it comes to issues that it considers more political than religious or spiritual, whereas the Catholic church has been more vocal, on both social justice issues and political issues which affect the livelihood of the people.

For many years now the main focus of the protestant church has been elsewhere: towards the evangelisation of China and finding ways (both official and unofficial) of setting up well established, self-reliant, Christian communities that can function within the cultural and political climate of communist rule.

This has been carried out so successfully in the past that under the tightened control of Xi Jinping China has considered it necessary to reverse that influence by disbanding many Christian churches, and severely curtailing their activities. Independent Christian leaders are considered to be a threat to communist control and in some cases have even been accused of sedition.

In Hong Kong, some protestant churches have been working together to help alleviate some of the livelihood issues so evident in our society by reaching out to the poor and marginalised in our communities, but they have not actively participated in movements which are more politically connected.

The pro-democracy Occupy Central movement, for example, divided society and church congregations alike, so it has been almost impossible to raise it as an issue to mobilise the mainly middle-class established church. This has been a huge disappointment to many Christian millennials and young people. They have then looked elsewhere for support and encouragement, and found it largely in Christian movements outside the walls of the established churches.

China extradition protest
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

When it comes to the Fugitive Offenders Bill, Christians start to see the thin edge of the wedge and the possibility of their religious freedom in Hong Kong being legally threatened by the long arm of Chinese control for activities in China that were previously considered acceptable.

They have also seen public opinion being overridden without due process and without an acceptable period for public debate, again leading to a loss of Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms without consultation.

Martin Luther King once said: “The church must be reminded that is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and critic of the state and never be its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

Anti-extradition rally on Sunday, June 16. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Perhaps the church has found its Martin Luther King moment in this present time of difficult unrest.

And even though the congregations of many established churches are still divided over the present political issue, the young people from outside of the established walls have found their voice and a way of expressing it. It has enabled the church as a whole to recapture its zeal and speak more openly on the issue.

China extradition protest
Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The church’s function in society is meant to be both as a priestly voice on behalf of the people and also as a prophetic voice to the government. Every government needs to be reminded that it is answerable to someone, whether to God or the people.

Although we do not yet have a government in Hong Kong that is “by the people, for the people,” on this present issue of the extradition bill the people have spoken loud and clear.

So the church has been reminding the government that it needs to respect the voice of the people and take action accordingly, not just push forward with its own agenda. And it has been praying to God on behalf of the people to ask for his intervention to protect the freedoms that we have long enjoyed and to provide a peaceful solution to the present impasse.

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Tony Read is a pastor who writes on social justice issues in Hong Kong.