Church faces unholy row over 'crowding'
Deacon says legal action claiming it is breaking safety rules by packing too many worshippers into its premises has an ulterior motive
A church being sued for allegedly cramming too many worshipers into its North Point commercial building says its problems only began when it was asked to sell its properties.
"I suspect there is a commercial agenda behind this litigation," said Hong Kong Mandarin Bible Church deacon Timothy Li, who is a partner of global law firm Sidley Austin.
The non-denominational Christian fellowship catering for Putonghua speakers is being sued by the Incorporated Owners of the China United Centre, where the church owns three units and a floor.
The incorporated owners say in court filings that it is taking action because it fears an insurance policy would be void if the management failed to take "reasonable precautions" to ensure legal obligations were met.
It cites the code of practice on fire safety, which says there should be no more than one person for every nine square metres of space in an office.
It alleges the church squeezes up to 120 people into three offices measuring 240 square metres on Sundays. On another floor, up to 179 people were in a 667-square-metre space. The owners' corporation claims the capacity of the three offices is 27 people, while only 74 should have been on the other floor.
"We have been there for 10 years with no problems. Now someone is trying to interfere with us," said church elder Vincent Shen, a retired computer sciences professor.
Shen was speaking after their first court appearance yesterday, when the incorporated owners tried to get an interim injunction restraining the church from exceeding the allowed number of visitors. A High Court judge adjourned the matter for the parties to exchange evidence.
Outside court, Li said: "There are more than a thousand churches operating in business buildings, but we are the only one being picked on."
Shen added: "Our floor area measures 11,000 square feet but they say there must not be more than 74 people. Does that sound reasonable?"
Shen said a lawyer claiming to represent one of the owners of the building approached the church on November 5 proposing to buy its properties. The church agreed to consider the proposal and set up a committee to explore the possibilities.
A few days later, the incorporated owners launched their action.
But Shen said the Fire Services Department inspected its spaces last month and found no safety problems.
When asked if services would continue as usual this weekend, Shen said: "We are not going to change our behaviour because of this."