Hong Kong’s oldest church building has displayed the Chinese national flag during a service for the first time, as the priest who proposed the move said some people’s reactions were rooted in “misunderstanding of the country.”

St John's Cathedral
St John’s Cathedral, the oldest church building in Hong Kong, displays the Chinese flag for the first time on National Day, October, 1, 2023. Photo: St John’s Cathedral.

St John’s Cathedral, built in 1849 and the parish church of Sheng Kung Hui, Hong Kong’s Anglican Church, held its regular Mandarin-language service at 10.30 am on Sunday. The Chinese flag was placed next to the pulpit in the nave – for the first time in the cathedral’s history – to mark National Day, the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The move was suggested in May by lawmaker and Reverend Canon Peter Koon, local media reported. Koon, a serving cathedral chaplain and the former provincial secretary general of the Sheng Kung Hui, was elected as a member of the city’s “patriot-only” legislature in December 2021.

Bishop of Hong Kong Island Matthias Der, who led the service, began by noting the presence of the flag. “We are here to pray for the country, and the flag is here to commemorate [National Day],” he said in Mandarin.

St John's Cathedral
St John’s Cathedral on October, 1, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

During the service, Koon said there had been some online debate over why the church would display the national flag. According to local media reports, over 140 people had signed an online petition against Koon’s proposal to display the flag.

“If we were to display the British flag before 1997, would there be the same volume of debate online?… mainly it’s because we have some misunderstanding of our country,” Koon said during a Mandarin-language sermon.

“There is a period in every country that, if held to the scrutiny of modern standards, would require improvement,” Koon said.

“We praise the lord for what the country has done well in the past… and we pray for god’s grace, mercy, and help for what could have been done better in our country.”

Reverend Peter Koon at Friday's Bills Committee meeting. Screenshot: LegCo livestream
Reverend Peter Koon at a Bills Committee meeting at the Legislative Council on August 4, 2023. Photo: LegCo livestream screenshot.

Responding to questions about online criticism, Koon said the Anglican Church had never separated the church and the state, and had always wanted to “express more” to mark National Day.

“It’s natural for Hongkongers to hold diverse opinions… placing the national flag at services is not uncommon, many places do the same,” Koon told HKFP in Cantonese after the service.

He added that the national flag would be displayed at National Day services in the future.

Freedom of religion in Hong Kong

Unlike in mainland China, which is officially atheist and exercises strict controls over religions, freedom of faith in Hong Kong is protected by the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. However, a number of high-profile religious leaders have expressed concerns that such freedoms may be eroded under the Beijing-imposed national security law, which was introduced in June 2020.

Cardinal Joseph Zen at at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Cardinal Joseph Zen at at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Cardinal Joseph Zen was arrested by national security police on suspicion of foreign collusion last May, before being released without charge. He was separately found guilty of failing to register a protester relief fund he was a trustee of, and fined HK$4,000.

In recent years, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong has stopped holding masses to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown, when hundreds if not thousands were killed as the People’s Liberation Army dispersed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

From that year until 2021, the Diocese held masses in Hong Kong to remember those who died.

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Hans Tse is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in local politics, academia, and media transformation. He was previously a social science researcher, with writing published in the Social Movement Studies and Social Transformation of Chinese Societies journals. He holds an M.Phil in communication from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Before joining HKFP, He also worked as a freelance reporter for Initium between 2019 and 2021, where he covered the height - and aftermath - of the 2019 protests, as well as the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.