U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2003 - China (Hong Kong)

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.

In July 1997, Hong Kong reverted to the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of China, with a high degree of autonomy protected by the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration. The Basic Law (Hong Kong's mini-constitution) provides for freedom of religion, and Hong Kong's Bill of Rights Ordinance prohibits religious discrimination. The Government generally respected these provisions in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to support the generally free practice of religion. Adherents of the spiritual movement Falun Gong were convicted in August 2002 of obstruction of a public space and minor assault for a March 2002 demonstration against the PRC government. This was the first prosecution of Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Six of the largest religious groups long have collaborated in a collegium on community affairs and make up a joint conference of religious leaders.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog. Consulate General officers meet regularly with religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The HKSAR occupies 422 square miles on more than 200 islands and the mainland, and its population is approximately 6.8 million. Approximately 43 percent of the population participates in some form of religious practice. The two largest religions are Buddhism and Taoism. Approximately 4 percent of the population is Protestant, 3 percent is Roman Catholic, and 1 percent is Muslim. There also are small numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews. Representatives of the spiritual movement Falun Gong state that their practitioners number approximately 500, although HKSAR government officials report that the number is lower.

Hong Kong has 1,300 Protestant congregations representing 50 denominations. The largest Protestant denomination is the Baptist Church, followed by the Lutheran Church. Other major denominations include Seventh-day Adventists, Anglicans, Christian and Missionary Alliance groups, the Church of Christ in China, Methodists, and Pentecostals. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is also present.

There are approximately 600 Buddhist and Taoist temples, approximately 800 Christian churches and chapels, 4 mosques, a Hindu temple, a Sikh temple, and a synagogue. The Catholic population is served by 309 priests, 60 monks, and 519 nuns, all of whom maintain traditional links to the Vatican. More than 385,996 children are enrolled in 316 Catholic schools and kindergartens. The Assistant Secretary General of the Federation of Asian Bishops' conference has his office in Hong Kong. Protestant churches run 3 colleges and more than 700 schools. Religious leaders tend to focus primarily on local spiritual, educational, social, and medical needs. Some religious leaders and communities maintain active contacts with their mainland and international counterparts. Catholic and Protestant clergy are invited to give seminars on the mainland, to teach classes there, and to develop two-way student exchanges on an ongoing basis. Numerous foreign missionary groups operate in and out of Hong Kong.

A wide range of faiths is represented in the HKSAR Government, the judiciary, and the civil service. A large number of influential non-Christians receive a Christian education.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, provides for freedom of religion, and the Bill of Rights Ordinance prohibits religious discrimination by the HKSAR Government. The Government generally respects these provisions in practice. The HKSAR Government at all levels strives to protect religious freedom and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. Although a part of the PRC since July 1, 1997, Hong Kong maintains autonomy in the area of religious freedom under the "one country, two systems" concept that defines Hong Kong's relationship to the mainland. The HKSAR Government does not recognize a state religion, and a wide range of faiths is represented in the HKSAR Government, the judiciary, and the civil service.

Religious groups are not required to register with the HKSAR Government and are exempted specifically from the Societies Ordinance, which requires the registration of nongovernmental organizations. Catholics in Hong Kong recognize the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church.

Religious groups wishing to purchase a site to construct a school or hospital initiate their request with the Lands Department. Church-affiliated schools make their request to the Education and Manpower Bureau. Church-affiliated hospitals do so with the Health and Welfare Bureau. For other matters, the Home Affairs Bureau functions as a liaison between religious groups and the HKSAR Government.

Representatives of 6 of the largest religious groups (Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Anglican) comprise 40 members of the 800-member Election Committee, which chooses Hong Kong's Chief Executive and a number of Legislative Council members.

The HKSAR Government grants public holidays to mark special religious days on the traditional Chinese and Christian calendars, including Christmas and Buddha's birthday.

Religious groups have a long history of cooperating with the HKSAR Government on social welfare projects. For example, the HKSAR Government often funds the operating costs of schools and hospitals built by religious groups.

The spiritual movement known as Falun Gong, which does not consider itself a religion, is registered under the Societies Ordinance, practices freely, and is able to stage public demonstrations. In August 2002, 16 Falun Gong practitioners – including 4 from Switzerland and 1 U.S. legal permanent resident – were convicted of obstruction of public space and minor assault during demonstrations in March 2002 outside the PRC's Government Liaison Office. This was the first time that Falun Gong practitioners were convicted of an offense in Hong Kong. The case is pending appeal. Other spiritual exercise groups, including Zhong Gong (which was banned in the mainland in late 1999), Xiang Gong, and Yan Xin Qigong, also are registered and practiceD freely in Hong Kong. The Taiwan-based Guan Yin Method, a group banned by the PRC Government, is registered legally and practices freely in Hong Kong as well.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Under the Basic Law the PRC Government does not have jurisdiction over religious practices in Hong Kong.

The Basic Law calls for ties between Hong Kong religious organizations and their mainland counterparts to be based on "nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect." This provision has not affected religious freedom in Hong Kong. In September 2002, Bishop Joseph Zen was appointed head of Hong Kong's Catholic Diocese. Bishop Zen has been an outspoken critic of both mainland and Hong Kong policies.

The spiritual group Falun Gong is free to practice, organize, conduct public demonstrations, or attract public attention for its movement. The number of Falun Gong practitioners in the HKSAR is reported to have dropped from approximately 1,000 to approximately 500 since the crackdown on the mainland began in mid-1999, although HKSAR officials claim that the number is lower for both periods. During the period covered by the report, Falun Gong regularly conducted public protests against the repression of fellow practitioners in the PRC, holding daily protests in the vicinity of the Hong Kong offices of the PRC Government. At least two bookstores carried Falun Gong books. Three local newspapers printed ads purchased by the group protesting the PRC Government's actions against its members. After two years during which the Falun Gong was unable to rent either government-administered or privately-owned facilities to host an annual conference, adherents obtained use of a privately-owned facility for a conference in Hong Kong in February 2003. Nearly 700 foreign and local practitioners attended. Local Falun Gong organizers also accepted a government offer of public space for concerts and a photo exhibit in October 2002.

In August 2002, an Australian artist and Falun Gong practitioner exhibited art at a public venue. The HKSAR Government requested that the exhibit organizer not distribute the artist's catalog, which noted that the artist had been imprisoned in China for several months in 2000 for being a Falun Gong practitioner. The organizer disregarded this request and the HKSAR Government neither stopped the exhibition nor restricted distribution of the catalog. The artist was denied entry into Hong Kong to attend the exhibit. The HKSAR Government stated that the decision to deny entry was based on immigration irregularities, not on the artist's Falun Gong affiliation. The artist had previously violated Hong Kong's immigration law by exiting Hong Kong without completing the required immigration paperwork.

In February 2003, the HKSAR Government barred 80 Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioners from entering Hong Kong to attend an annual conference. Another 380 Taiwanese practitioners in the same group were admitted. One practitioner from Japan and one from Thailand were also denied entry. The HKSAR Government cited undefined "security reasons" for entry bans of the Falun Gong practitioners and denied that the actions were based on the individuals' religious beliefs or membership in any particular organization. In June 2002, over 90 foreign practitioners were also denied entry upon arrival at the Hong Kong international airport. The Falun Gong and some other international observers have alleged that they were denied entry because of pressure from Beijing.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religious communities in society contributed to religious freedom.

Two ecumenical bodies facilitate cooperative work among the Protestant churches and encourage local Christians to play an active part in society. Six of the largest religious groups (Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Muslim) long have collaborated in a collegium on community affairs and make up the joint conference of religious leaders.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the HKSAR Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Consulate General officers at all levels have made clear U.S. Government interests in the full protection and maintenance of freedom of religion, conscience, expression, and association. Consulate General officers meet regularly with religious leaders and community representatives.


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