In a high-walled Art Deco villa in the Hong Kong suburbs of Kowloon, the Vatican operates an unofficial diplomatic mission, its only political outpost of any kind in China.
The mission keeps such a low profile that it isn't listed in the Roman Catholic Church's formal directory of every priest and property in the city. The two monsignors who staff the outpost have no formal standing with Beijing or the Hong Kong government, and they don't conduct official work, not even meeting Hong Kong officials. The tenuous foothold is a sign of the delicate position in China of the world's largest Christian denomination, many of whose members in Hong Kong staunchly support the city's democracy movement.
And now the mission – and the Church as a whole in Hong Kong – is coming under mounting pressure as Beijing moves to extinguish opposition voices in the city under a new national security law.
In May, two Chinese nuns who work at the mission were arrested by mainland authorities during a visit home to Hebei province, according to three Catholic clerics with knowledge of the matter. The nuns, in their 40s, were detained for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They are forbidden to leave the mainland, according to one of the clerics. Meanwhile, Western diplomats say, Chinese security agents have stepped up surveillance of the mission in recent months.
The arrests, which haven't been previously reported, are viewed by top clerics here and in the Vatican as a sign Beijing wants the mission shut. It lacks official standing because the Holy See and China haven't established formal diplomatic ties. While priests are sometimes arrested on the mainland, "it is highly unusual for nuns to be detained," said another of the clerics, who has long-time contacts on the mainland. "Normally they are left alone."
The pressure is also being felt at the heart of the Church in Hong Kong, by the leadership of the large local diocese.
Senior members of the clergy in Hong Kong told Reuters that Beijing is trying to extend its control over the diocese, in part by influencing the choice of the city's next bishop, a position that's been open since the last bishop's death two years ago. Beijing, they said, is seeking to apply to Hong Kong a two-year-old agreement with the Holy See that gives the Chinese government a significant say in the appointment of prelates on the mainland.
According to Vatican officials, Hong Kong wasn't part of the deal because of the city's semi-autonomous status. But with Beijing exerting greater control over Hong Kong, mainland priests have been passing information to priests in the city about which clerics the ruling Communist Party favors to take on the bishop's role, the senior clerics said.
As the pressure rises, the acting head of the local Church, Cardinal John Tong, has been curbing activist voices in the Catholic hierarchy, according to four people with knowledge of the matter. One target has been the Justice and Peace Commission, a human rights body within the diocese that has traditionally championed political and religious liberty.
In October, the four people said, Tong's executive committee, known as the curia, censored a statement on Sino-Vatican relations released by the commission. They removed a reference to James Su Zhimin, the Bishop of Baoding, who was arrested by Chinese authorities more than 20 years ago on the mainland and has become a hero to many in the Church. His fate is unknown.
Tong, 81, has also told his priests not to deliver sermons that are too political, cautioning them that they should avoid using language that causes "social disorder." Tong, like all bishops, has full administrative authority over his diocese.
"We are at the bottom of the pit – there is no freedom of expression anymore," the former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, told Reuters in a written reply to questions. "All these things are normal in mainland China. We are becoming like any other city in China."
With the exception of 88-year-old Cardinal Zen, all Church leaders, local priests and parishioners interviewed for this article declined to be named. "For any word you say," Zen told Reuters, the authorities "can say you're offending the National Security Law."
In a written statement, the office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, including freedom of religion, are safeguarded under both Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution, and the national security law.
The Liaison Office, the main arm of the Chinese government in Hong Kong, didn't respond to questions for this article. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing didn't answer questions about the nuns' status. Asked whether China sought to shut down the unofficial Vatican mission in the city, the ministry said in a statement: "As far as we know, the Vatican has not set up any official representative institution in Hong Kong."
A Vatican spokesman declined to comment for this story. In a statement, the Hong Kong diocese said that parishioners are encouraged to express their views. "Hence, instead of suppression, the Diocese welcomes a wide spectrum of different voices," it said. Cardinal Tong declined an interview request.
The pressure on the Catholic Church is building as Beijing advances a broader effort to stamp out independent political forces in Hong Kong. That push began early this year, after months of sometimes violent mass protests. It intensified on June 30, when China imposed the new national security law that makes anything Beijing regards as subversion, secession, terrorism or colluding with foreign forces punishable by up to life in prison.
Since then, leading pro-democracy activists have been arrested. Democratic lawmakers have been ousted from the legislature, and others have quit in protest. This month, one of Hong Kong's most prominent democrats, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, was charged with colluding with foreign forces under the national security law. And teachers have had their licenses revoked for allegedly making political comments in class.
The Church is the latest major institution here to feel squeezed by Beijing. Reuters has documented this year how other institutions central to the city's freedoms and rule of law, including its judiciary, its police force and the democracy movement itself, have been weakened, co-opted or cowed. For the ruling Communist Party, Hong Kong's Catholics pose a serious challenge to its authority.
On the mainland, a government religious bureaucracy and decades of repression have contained religious practice and the sway of the Vatican, effectively driving big sections of the Catholic Church underground. But in Hong Kong, the Church has flourished.
The Catholic enclave grew in importance during the decades Britain ruled the city after the Communist Party took power in 1949 and dramatically curtailed religious freedom on the mainland. Hong Kong became a base for missionary outposts that reached into mainland China, attempting to keep contact with the faithful.
Today, there are an estimated 400,000 Catholics in this city of 7.5 million, and the Church permeates society through a network of schools, hospitals, charities and newspapers. Many of the city's elite are products of Catholic schools opened early in the British colonial era. Particularly troubling for Beijing, Catholic activists have been influential in the city's protests and pro-democracy movement.
With Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong intensifying, Tong and his diocese leadership are now moving to curb these activist voices, including that of the Justice and Peace Commission. The decision by the Church hierarchy to remove the reference to Bishop Su and other clerics detained on the mainland from the commission's October statement is telling, according to three of the clerics who spoke to Reuters. For years, the commission had stood by Su, regularly issuing calls for his freedom.
The focus on the commission reflects its decades of support for democratic movements in the city, said multiple people familiar with its work. Formed in 1977 and funded by the diocese, the commission comprises lay Catholic volunteers and full-time staffers who are overseen by senior clergy. It has long monitored religious persecution on the mainland. And it is a member of a broad democratic action group called the Civil Human Rights Front that has organized some of Hong Kong's larger regular protests, as well as some of last year's mass peaceful protests.
"Although the commission faces more challenges under the National Security Law, we will continue to implement Catholic Social Teachings for the promotion of social justice in every aspect of human life," Lina Chan, the body's executive secretary, said in response to questions.
The commission's work has included speaking out for religious figures, such as Bishop Su, who have been repressed on the mainland. In October 2017, for instance, it organized a prayer vigil to mark his detention that was attended by then-Bishop Michael Yeung.
Hong Kong Catholics say Su's plight has long resonated in their community, given the harshness and length of his detention and his role as a spiritual leader in China's Hebei province, traditionally an underground Catholic stronghold. Su's fate has never been explained by Chinese authorities.
U.S. House Republican Chris Smith chastised China for Su's treatment at a congressional human rights hearing this year. "Why does a powerful dictatorship fear peaceful men and women of faith and virtue?" said Smith, who met Su in 1994.
Since the national security law was imposed, said one person familiar with the commission's operations, the diocese leadership has been particularly keen for the body "to adopt a more neutral posture."
In response to questions, a spokesman for the diocese said it had not received "any messages or instructions from authorities concerned stating that Cardinal Tong and members of the clergy needed to rein in pro-democracy elements in the diocese."
The removal of the reference to Su in the Justice and Peace Commission's statement wasn't the first time superiors reined in the body. In May, the commission issued a statement of concern about police enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions to hamper protest activities. Later, after the diocese received complaints from within the Catholic community about the statement, the commission was told by the diocese leadership that it had to submit all future statements for checking, according to the four people with knowledge of the matter.
"Apparently the authorities in the diocese have now decided to please the government by discouraging certain initiatives of the commission … rather than respecting the commission in doing its job according to the social teaching of the Church," said Cardinal Zen. "I'm afraid that a real persecution has already begun."
In late August, Tong issued a letter to clergy urging them to avoid politically loaded sermons. In another statement released in September, Tong referred to the August letter, saying he had called on pastors in their sermons to "keep abreast of the times and speak out for justice, and, on the other hand, avoid using slandering and abusive expressions that insinuate or instigate hatred and social disorder, inasmuch as they are against the Christian faith."
Hong Kong-born Tong marked a significant change in style when he was appointed by the pope as bishop in 2009, upon Zen's retirement. While Tong did call last year on the city government to listen to the people of Hong Kong, he is known for his non-confrontational approach toward Beijing. Zen, by contrast, has long been outspoken in his support for democracy and civil rights.
Born in Shanghai and raised by Salesian priests after his family fell into poverty in World War Two, Zen frequently criticized the Hong Kong government over civil rights in his seven years as bishop, from 2002 to 2009. He was also a prominent figure at annual pro-democracy marches and vigils to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. In recent years, Zen has grown increasingly critical of the Vatican's deal with Beijing on the appointment of Chinese bishops.
Tong, who served as bishop between 2009 and 2017, returned in an acting role following the death of his successor, Bishop Michael Yeung, in January 2019. He has openly supported the Vatican-Beijing agreement on bishops.
Some of Tong's critics say he is too pliant towards Beijing. But his defenders say he is trying to "keep the wolf from the door," as one priest put it.
"His back is against the wall and he is trying to save his flock under this intense pressure," said another priest. "He is pro-Vatican rather than pro-Beijing."
Tong also presides over a divided congregation. Some of Hong Kong's most influential pro-Beijing figures are Catholics, including Chief Executive Lam and other members of the city elite. And some of the most vocal critics of the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities are pillars of the Catholic community, too, chief among them Cardinal Zen, the media magnate Lai, and barrister Martin Lee, who founded Hong Kong's largest democratic party.
Asked how Lam, as a Hong Kong Catholic, viewed Beijing's moves toward the Church, her spokesman said that "any attempt to politicize" her faith was regrettable and that it "should remain a private matter."
It has rarely been easy to be a Catholic in China. The Church struggled to gain a significant foothold during centuries of imperial rule, starting with the Vatican's first diplomatic efforts in the 13th century. The Communist Party's victory in 1949 led to the suppression of Christian missions across the country.
The situation on the mainland remains tough for the Vatican. The Party views Catholicism as an inherent threat because it recognizes a foreign leader, the pope, as its moral authority. Beijing is also wary of the Church's role in the downfall of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989, in particular Poland. And the Vatican continues to recognize Taiwan, where it established its main presence after the Communist victory on the mainland, and does not have formal diplomatic ties with Beijing.
The estimated 10 million Catholics on the Chinese mainland were for decades split between a state-sanctioned church and an underground church that recognized the pope's authority. Then, in 2018, the Holy See struck an interim deal with Chinese officials aimed at addressing the divide. While the deal gives the pope final say on the appointment of bishops, it allows the government the right to propose candidates. The agreement's exact terms remain secret.
Critics of the deal say it has failed to end persecution of Christians on the mainland, while the Vatican has said it is needed to heal the split in the Church in China. It was extended for another two years in October despite reports of ongoing detentions of priests and the destruction of some churches on the mainland. Reuters hasn't independently confirmed these reports.
But the deal didn't include Hong Kong, say Vatican officials. It was deliberately kept out of the arrangement, Vatican officials have told Reuters, reflecting the "one country, two systems" guarantees under which Britain handed its former colony back to Chinese rule in 1997, and which has afforded the city a high degree of autonomy and broad individual freedoms. The appointment of bishops in the city has been the sole preserve of the Vatican.
Now, however, senior Hong Kong clerics and missionary priests say the city has emerged as a new battleground between Rome and Beijing. China, they say, is acting as if the new security law effectively allows it to apply the deal to Hong Kong, where the Catholic community is anxiously awaiting the announcement of the next bishop, succeeding temporary leader Tong.
Even before the national security law was introduced, priests on the mainland began passing on information to their counterparts in Hong Kong about which clerics the Communist Party favors to lead the Church in Hong Kong, according to multiple Church sources. "Mainland priests with previously little knowledge of Hong Kong church politics are suddenly apparent experts and pushing candidates," said the priest with long-time contacts on the mainland.
Five priests in the city told Reuters that Beijing has been quietly backing Father Peter Choy for bishop, sending messages to that effect via mainland priests. Choy, 61, is a member of the diocese's executive committee and also vice-director of a diocese study center that focuses on the evolution of the Church in China. He kept a low profile during the anti-government protests of 2019 as the unrest escalated, some priests and lay Catholics say.
Many Catholics say Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha would be a popular choice in the Hong Kong flock. He took a higher profile than Choy amid the protests last year, leading a public prayer for peace and trying to mediate between police and protesters at a violent standoff at the city's Polytechnic University.
A Vatican official in Rome told Reuters the Church is aware that Beijing would not want someone in the position who was too radical.
Choy and Ha both declined to be interviewed.
China's foreign ministry didn't answer a question about whether it was trying to extend the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops to Hong Kong. The agreement with the Vatican was "an important deal" and the two sides "remain in good communication" on its implementation, the ministry said in a statement.
Cardinal Zen said he fears the Vatican may not have the backbone to stand up to China on the prelate pick. "They are afraid of irritating or displeasing the Beijing government, so everybody knows that the future bishop of Hong Kong needs to have the blessing from Beijing," Zen said. "We hope they have the courage to assign a good shepherd to our diocese instead of appointing somebody who would be only an official chosen by the Beijing government."
Tong's parishioners sense the pressure, too. As in churches around the world, masses in Hong Kong have been subdued because of COVID-19 restrictions. The devout still go to pray during quiet moments in the cathedral and the smaller parish churches that dot the city, some in high-rises. Others visit outdoor grottos built into church walls with statues of the Virgin Mary. Even so, some Hong Kong Catholics talk of a particularly ominous sense of darkness.
"I've started to pray for the church for the first time," said one woman, 62, as she left a grotto in the city's Eastern District. "The Hong Kong church has been so strong for us over the years, but now it seems so weak. There is too much secrecy – we don't know what is in this strange deal between the Vatican and Beijing, and we don't know who our bishop will be."
The Vatican has no formal embassy to represent its interests with the Chinese government. By contrast, in countries with which the Holy See has full relations, Vatican missions engage in regular, open diplomacy.
But the Vatican does have the unofficial mission in a suburban corner of Kowloon, across the harbor from the main island of Hong Kong. Though the two monsignors who lead the mission must remain discreet, they do maintain links with local and mainland clerics and missionary organizations, according to Western diplomats.
For the Holy See, the Vatican official said, the mission provides another advantage: leverage. What the Vatican would really like is a presence in Beijing. If China were ever to agree to a Vatican presence on the mainland, then the mission in Hong Kong could be closed, the official said.
The mission's two detained Chinese nuns find themselves caught between Beijing and the Holy See. The nuns, who were extensively involved in the mission's work, have served there for the past five years.
They were detained in Hebei after traveling there to visit their families, two of the clerics said. After their three-week detention, they spent months under house arrest, and their families' homes were under surveillance. The restrictions were eased last month. They are free to attend mass in nearby churches but cannot leave the mainland and return to Hong Kong.
The Church has not publicly mentioned the arrests. The Vatican official in Rome told Reuters he interpreted the move as a way for Beijing to indicate its unhappiness with the mission's presence in Hong Kong.
Cardinal Zen says efforts by government authorities to silence the Church in Hong Kong are inexorable. "I don't know for how long you can still hear my voice," he wrote in his statement to Reuters. "So please pray for us."