IT is most ironic - and unfortunate - that the plan by the Lutheran World Federation to host its assembly in the Special Administrative Region a week after it is established has run into trouble. This would be the first time that the assembly, held once every seven years, is convened in Asia. The SAR, already the centre of attention worldwide at that time, would draw additional attention in the international religious community. More importantly, it would be an golden opportunity for China and the SAR to demonstrate to the world that freedoms - of religion, and of broader lifestyles - would remain unchanged after the handover. Participants in the assembly from around the world could tell the world, much of which is still sceptical of the fate of post-1997 Hong Kong, what the SAR will be like. They could declare that it will be the same cosmopolitan city where people can gather to do business, attend conferences and exchange ideas. An assembly of this kind is a vote of confidence from the international community that Hong Kong badly needs at its most sensitive and volatile period. But local officials from Xinhua (the New China News Agency) have questioned whether it would be 'appropriate' for the assembly to be held at a time when the territory celebrates the return to Chinese sovereignty. Arguing that the event is a matter for after July 1 next year, officials maintain the Hong Kong Government should take the initiative to bring it to the Joint Liaison Group for consideration. The officials did not explain why they think it would not be appropriate. In subsequent off-the-record media briefings, mainland officials and pro-China figures attempted to justify their concerns with a variety of reasons such as venue and transport and visa problems. But the attempt at damage-control has been counter-productive. The harder they tried to explain, the more fears they raised. If the participants can encounter a visa problem after the first week of SAR rule, it rouses further fears that Hong Kong will no longer be a place where people can travel with ease. Besides, the organiser is the best one to judge and make a decision about any logistical problems such as accommodation. Suggestions from Xinhua are unnecessary even though they may have acted with good intentions. While the celebration plans have yet to be fully formulated, it is inappropriate for Xinhua to dissuade anyone from holding large-scale conferences at that time. What is more sensible for the Chinese Government and the Preparatory Committee is to take early decisions on details of the handover ceremony and celebrations. It will then be up to those thinking of organising events around that time to judge whether it makes sense for them to compete for facilities. The controversy over the Lutheran assembly may, as mainland officials say, be no big deal, but the questions and fears raised are serious ones. It is one of the most extreme cases of mainland officials speaking up on behalf of the SAR on what they are convinced to be the right decision. No wonder the issue has roused concerns in the international community. A front-page article on the Lutheran assembly carried in a German newspaper last week asked: 'Will Hong Kong remain an international and open city under Chinese administration? It is futile for Beijing to dismiss such fears and concerns as a misunderstanding. Much work is needed for mainland officials to get a real touch of the sentiments of the local and international communities. The controversy has shown that mainland officials are not alert to the political sensitivities of their deeds and words. But much more worrying is the fear that it is a reflection of the 'father knows best' mentality of mainland cadres. It does not bode well for the future SAR.