Bishop Tong calls on Beijing to free activist pair

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 December, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's top Catholic leader used his Christmas message to criticise Beijing and urge the release of jailed dissidents. Bishop John Tong Hon likened the Chinese activists in jail to the shining star that led the three wise men to Jesus in the biblical nativity story.

'Hong Kong and our motherland manifest a number of shining stars,' he said. 'Liu Xiaobo , who is in prison for promoting human rights, as well as Zhao Lianhai for uncovering the truth about the tainted-milk scandal.'

The head of the city's Catholic diocese called for the release of Liu, the Nobel peace laureate, and Zhao, who became an activist for families hit by the adulteration of milk for baby formula with melamine, an industrial chemical, after his own son became ill from drinking tainted formula. 'I hope and pray that they will soon be set free,' Tong said.

He also spoke up for civil rights and freedom of belief, saying they were a prerequisite to China enhancing its international reputation.

Tong's stand is highly unusual. He has previously steered clear of politics in his Christmas messages, and was recently criticised by some in the church for his silence amid controversy over a priest's likening of tycoon Li Ka-shing to the devil and for caving into the rich and powerful when the diocese expressed regret for the displeasure the remark had caused Li.

Tong's message also touched on the sensitive Sino-Vatican relationship. Saying that some mainland clergy were also among the 'shining stars', he spoke of 'clergy from the underground church who are behind bars for defending religious freedom, as well as clergy in the open church who were forced to participate in an illegitimate episcopal ordination, and to attend the Eighth Catholic Representatives Assembly in sorrowful protest.'

He was referring to the controversial ordination of Father Joseph Guo Jincai by the state-backed Catholic church on the mainland as bishop of Chengde, Hebei, last month without the Vatican's approval, and to a subsequent conference of mainland bishops.

Mainland bishops also elected a new chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which controls the state-backed church.

In related news, Pope Benedict yesterday appointed Hong Kong theologian and priest Savio Hon Tai-fai deputy head of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples in charge of missionary work.

Hon is a member of the Salesian order in China and translated the catechism into Chinese. His appointment is seen as a possible opening to mainland authorities amid tensions between them and the Vatican.

Beijing this week hit back at Vatican criticism of the state-sanctioned Catholic church, which is not recognised by the Pope, calling it imprudent and dangerous.