'The churches in Hong Kong have never experienced so many heavy issues as we have in the past two months," sighs Tso Man King, head of the Hong Kong Christian Council, an umbrella group for the territory's mainline Protestant churches.
He has spent several weeks with colleagues wrestling over whether to accept China's invitation to send church representatives to serve on the Selection Committee, Hong Kong's 400-member body that will choose the first Chinese chief executive later this year.
After considerable soul-searching, the Christian establishment decided that "principled" cooperation in helping form Hong Kong's new administration was the best tactic.
But the decision to cooperate did not sit well with all Christians. Nine Protestant and Roman Catholic groups dissented. They are especially disturbed that the tasks of the Selection Committee include picking the 60 members of the appointed provisional legislature, which will replace the elected one. What Hong Kong needs are fewer people willing to cooperate with the new order and more people "who can monitor and dare to criticize Hong Kong Christians Wrestle Over Future Ties With China
the increasingly powerful civil authorities controlled by a small group of people," declared Kwok Nai Wong of the Christian Institute, one of the nine dissenters.
It is a debate as ancient as the Romans and as up-to-the minute as the fast-approaching handover date, July 1, 1997. How far should Christians go in cooperating with the state? More to the point, how far should Hong Kong's 500,000 Christians cooperate with an officially atheistic government that sometimes views their activities as dangerous to public order?
Adding fuel to the fire was the proposal put forth by some Christians for a special thanksgiving observance this year on Oct. 1, China's National Day. It is a holiday that hasn't been widely observed in Hong Kong, certainly not in the churches. "We don't want to celebrate National Day by shouting 'Long Live Mao Zedong,' " Tso says. "But if it means elevating our national identity, our pride in being Chinese, I don't mind." He notes that Christianity has often been viewed in China as a foreign creed: "Add one Christian and you subtract one patriot."
Proponents say they want to show that Hong Kong people can be Christians and patriotic, too. But opponents note that it will make uncomfortable many church members who were refugees from the Communists. "China didn't start on Oct. 1, 1949," says the Rev. Chu Yui-ming, pastor of the Chaiwan Baptist Church. "This is purely a political holiday; it celebrates the victory of the Chinese Communist Party."
Some see the hand of Beijing's de facto embassy here - the New China News Agency - behind the recent controversies, though Tso says he doubts there was an intentional decision to divide the church.
But he concedes that they have had the practical effect of identifying Christians who might be considered "friendly" to Beijing and those that are not. Many of the people whom Mr. Chu likes to call "silent-majority pastors" would have preferred to keep their opinions to their own conscience.
Beyond these two immediate issues loom larger questions of religious freedoms after 1997. Will the local churches be subject to government oversight like their counterparts in China? Will they be able to maintain their ties to sister denominations abroad? Will local organizations like the Hong Kong Christian Council become subservient to the Chinese Christian Council?
Church leaders received some assurances in late June from the director of China's religious affairs bureau, Ye Xiaowen. He met with leaders of all the major faiths and told them, "We're equals. China won't interfere in Hong Kong, if Hong Kong doesn't interfere in China."
That sounded promising and, in fact, the principle of mutual noninterference is a central tenet of the "one country, two systems" concept promised Hong Kong and is specifically spelled out in the Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of religion. The problem is that many Christians consider it their moral duty to "interfere" in Chinese affairs. Conservative evangelicals, mostly from the West, deliberately violate China's laws by smuggling in Bibles or foreign missionaries and boast about it on fund-raising trips back home. In the past, the worst penalty they faced was deportation back to the safety of Hong Kong (mainland colleagues might be jailed). Now would they be deported from Hong Kong for violating China's laws?
Chu is active in the Christian Industrial Council, which criticizes Chinese labor practices and calls for the establishment of independent unions. He is also a leader of the Alliance for the Democratic and Patriotic Movement in China, which helps organize the annual observances honoring those who died in the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square uprising.
"Hong Kong people want to believe in the 'one country, two systems' concept, but from the point of view of the church, it is not so clear because the church's mission is not like politics," he says. "Ours is to spread the gospel."