Li phones top Catholic over 'devil' jibe, but church denies apology

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am

Tycoon Li Ka-shing has personally intervened in the row over a Catholic priest who likened him to the devil at a Halloween function, but the church has denied it made an apology to the property magnate.

Hong Kong's richest man telephoned the Catholic church's vicar general, Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, to discuss the row and was told he should consider the remarks by Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai a 'joke' and put the matter behind him.

But the row is now threatening to cause a split in the church as pressure from rank-and-file Catholics directed at church leaders rises.

Some are asking why top clerics chose not to back Father Law, who made the 'devil' comments in the context of overall criticism of sharp practice by property developers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a church official confirmed that Li, chairman of Cheung Kong (Holdings), called vicar general Yeung after one of his top aides complained to the diocese in a phone call and letter last week.

'Father Yeung explained to Mr Li that Father Law made the comments in an unofficial manner which did not represent the diocese's position.

'The comments were only meant as a joke,' the person said.

'He told Mr Li not to dwell on the matter, which was not a malicious attempt against him.'

But the person denied that Yeung apologised to Li on the diocese's behalf, or that they discussed whether the matter would affect Li's future donations of money to the church.

Contrary to a report in the Protestant weekly newspaper the Christian Times on Monday, which said Yeung took the initiative to call Li, the person said it was Gerald Ma - a senior member of staff at Li's company - who called Yeung and arranged the phone conversation with Li.

In the report, diocesan chancellor Father Lawrence Lee Len was quoted as saying that Li expressed displeasure but accepted Yeung's 'apology', and that the matter would not affect his future donations to the church.

The report also quoted Lee as saying that the diocese had already asked Law to be mindful with his words.

The church official said the report in the Christian Times was 'inaccurate'. Lee, the newspaper and Cheung Kong could not be contacted for comment last night.

Yeung is on annual retreat with other diocesan priests.

The row has caused a storm among Catholics, with many of the faithful questioning why the diocese leadership has caved in to the rich and powerful.

Church insiders also pointed to Bishop John Tong Hon's silence on the matter. Church leader Tong has delegated the matter to Yeung.

The insiders fear that the row has hurt the church's image and could ultimately affect Tong's credibility.

A person familiar with the situation said Tong considered 'a full stop' had now been put to the matter. Writing on his Facebook account yesterday Law, who heads the diocese's liturgy commission, said people should not 'twist' his comments by shifting the focus to his likening of Li to the devil.

He said he was using Li as an example to condemn the 'evil practices' of property developers in misleading flat buyers and of conglomerates which monopolise the consumer market.

'Should we apologise for Jesus? Or we should apologise to Jesus?' he wrote, adding that he hoped the matter would serve as a lesson for the diocese.

Lina Chan Lai-na, executive secretary of the diocese's Justice and Peace Commission, said the church's credibility as a moral force will be damaged if it has apologised to Li.

She said: 'The church's social teaching requires people to speak out and condemn injustice no matter whether you are a lay believer or a priest. What Father Law said was only following what was taught by Jesus.'