By Yanni Chow
HONG KONG (Reuters) - When Hong Kong's largely peaceful pro-democracy protests turned violent last summer, it drove a wedge through every section of society, dividing friends, families and also worshippers at its more than 1,500 churches.
The majority of people in Hong Kong follow some form of Buddhist, Taoist or other traditional Chinese religion, but the former British colony has about 900,000 practicing Christians, about 12% of the population according to government figures, split almost evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths. There is no consensus among them about the protests or China's tightening grip on the city.
Canaan Wong, Blesson Chan and Kristy Chan, all in their mid-20s, are part of a group of about 40 people who in late June quit their positions as mentors and teachers at the evangelical Tung Fook Church, because they said they felt pressure from senior church leaders to keep quiet about political matters.
They said several pastors were told by church leaders to remove their names from public statements opposing a bill last year that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, the issue which sparked the protests. The bill was eventually withdrawn. The three said they did not know which church leaders, or how many, were telling pastors to remove their names.
"It sends chills down our spine with such self-censoring," said Wong. "This shows that in this church, politics clearly overrides religion and truth."
The group wants the church to speak up on political issues, such as the new national security law enacted by China on June 30, which makes anything that Beijing regards as subversion or promoting independence punishable by life in prison.
"We are not asking for a yellow church," said Blesson Chan, using the local shorthand for pro-democracy. "We just feel that church is a part of the society and should not be hiding up in an ivory tower."
The group is set to have talks with leaders of the church, which is located next to the headquarters of China's new national security agency in Hong Kong, about how to resolve their issues. A representative for Tung Fook church said it wanted to “enhance communication and eliminate misunderstanding” with the group.
If the church does not take a stand, the three said they feared it will end up resembling the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a Protestant organization in mainland China that is closely controlled by the state and whose leaders staunchly support the Chinese Communist Party.
The National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China declined to comment.
Although China is an officially atheist state, it does allow certain state-supervised religious organizations, such as the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, to operate. However, Beijing has closed down many so-called underground or house churches outside the state-controlled system and has imprisoned worshippers on the grounds that they are more loyal to their religion than to the Chinese state.
Chinese authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
On the other side of the divide is a 49-year-old police officer, who said he left the Christian and Missionary Alliance Tak Tsuen Church after 14 years last June, when he was abused by fellow worshippers who told him the police deserved to be attacked by protesters.
"As Christians, seeing the police bleed and wounded, how can you think it's good and we deserve it?" said Sing, who asked to be identified by only one name. The church did not reply to a request for comment.
Shortly after, the policeman joined Trinity Theology Baptist Church, set up by former police officer Ricky Wong, 54, as a refuge for police who felt unwelcome elsewhere.
"I want to minimize my brothers' and sisters' hatred towards the yellow camp," Wong told Reuters, referring to the general opposition among police officers to Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
"When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd," said Wong, quoting a passage from the Bible. "These people are also lambs."
Wong said the 120 or so members of his church, which include many members of the uniformed services plus some doctors and teachers, pray at secret locations for fear of being targeted by pro-democracy activists.
Despite his concern about the yellow camp, Wong said he did not identify as blue, or pro-Beijing. Instead, he described his congregation as "Team Jesus."
ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD
When China took back control of Hong Kong in 1997, it adopted the principle of "one country, two systems" and agreed to uphold the territory’s Basic Law, its de facto constitution, which includes the freedom of speech and religion.
That principle is now seen to be under threat after China imposed the new national security law, which supporters say will bring stability to the financial hub, but critics say will crush all forms of freedom.
Hong Kong’s government did not reply to a request for comment. It has said previously the new security law preserves “the basic rights and freedom lawfully enjoyed by law-abiding citizens.” The law makes no mention of religious groups.
Nevertheless, church leaders are treading cautiously.
A day before the law was imposed, Lo Hing-choi, president of the Baptist Convention of Hong Kong, the umbrella group for the city’s 164 Baptist congregations, posted a message critical of the law on the convention's website, but took it down a day later.
"We expect the government to enact just laws to make society harmonious and stable," said Lo in the withdrawn post, arguing that the new security law could not achieve long-term stability and that only a truly democratic system would lead to prosperity.
Lo, 68, told Reuters he was unnerved by an anonymous caller who accused him of encouraging violence.
Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the Chinese state, singled out Lo for what it called "hijacking the churches." The newspaper did not reply to a request for comment.
"In churches now, different people, different political stances are constantly fighting," said Wong. "Right now, I don't think the rift in our society can be mended."
(Reporting By Yanni Chow in Hong Kong; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Bill Rigby)