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Pope Francis waves from his window overlooking St Peter's Square at the end of the Angelus prayer on Sunday. Photo: AP

Pope strays from script to avoid mention of Hong Kong in Sunday address

  • Embargoed version of Angelus speech shows omission of a paragraph expressing ‘worries’ over city’s religious freedom
  • Holy See declines to comment on reason for change but some believe it is tied to renegotiation of China-Vatican agreement
Pope Francis did not mention Hong Kong in his regular noon address on Sunday, despite a paragraph on his concerns for the city’s religious freedoms in the wake of a new national security law appearing in the original script.

According to an embargoed copy of the Angelus address, seen and confirmed by the South China Morning Post, the missing paragraph expressed the Pope’s “attention and worries” about Hong Kong’s social and religious freedoms.

His decision to omit mention of the city has stirred controversy, with critics accusing the Pope of kowtowing to pressure from Beijing. Other experts believe it was a calculated move by the Pope to release his concerns informally – and avoid being perceived as “meddling with domestic affairs” – as Rome attempts to renegotiate a landmark Sino-Vatican agreement.

The Pope’s Angelus address to the faithful in St Peter’s Square traditionally features a brief comment on one or two international situations. A copy of Sunday’s speech in Italian was circulated to accredited Vatican journalists under a strict embargo an hour earlier.

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A comparison of the embargoed version with the speech later released by the Holy See press office has shown Pope Francis stuck to the majority of the prepared remarks. In the first part – about how the poor and suffering could find salvation and comfort by following Jesus – he added some impromptu teachings and excerpts from Scripture.

In the second part of his address, in which he commented on international affairs, the Pope initially followed the script verbatim, hailing the United Nations Security Council’s “request for a global and immediate ceasefire”.

However, he then omitted a paragraph about Hong Kong which read, in the embargoed version: “I would like to express my heartfelt concerns to the people who live there. In this current situation, the issues on hand are undoubtedly very delicate and have been affecting everyone’s life there.”

According to the embargoed script, Pope Francis was expected to call on involved parties to handle the problems with “foresight, wisdom and authentic dialogue” which required “courage, humility, non-violence and respect of the dignity and rights of everyone involved”.

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The missing paragraph concluded with the Pope expressing the desire that “social life, especially religious life, can be expressed in complete and genuine freedom as prescribed in international laws and regulations”.

The Holy See press office did not respond to the Post’s enquiry about the omission, which followed the enactment by Beijing of its controversial national security law for Hong Kong, a move which has prompted religious leaders in the city to express concerns over future freedom to practice their faith.

Cardinal John Tong Hon, the Catholic Church’s apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, said last month that he wished to see the religious freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong remain intact. Tong added that relations between the city’s churches and the Vatican should not be deemed as “collusion with foreign forces” under the national security law.

Hong Kong national security law official English version:

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, one of the Pope’s fiercest critics over his non-confrontational approach towards China, told reporters he had no confidence in the city’s religious freedom and was prepared for arrest under Hong Kong’s new law.

Commenting on the Pope’s omission of Hong Kong from his Sunday Angelus prayer, Lawrence Reardon, an expert on Chinese politics with University of New Hampshire, said he believed it was an “indirect move” by Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, to show the world his concerns over the city without embarrassing Beijing.

Reardon said the timing of the address was delicate, as Rome was trying to renegotiate a 2018 agreement with Beijing over the appointment of Chinese bishops, which the Pope believed could heal the rift between China’s official and unofficial Catholic churches.

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The Pope needed to avoid being perceived by Beijing as a foreign force meddling with Chinese domestic affairs, Reardon said, suggesting it was a calculated approach to maintain the status quo of the Hong Kong church while achieving a renegotiated deal with China.

“While the text was distributed to all the reporters, the Pope did not speak these prayers aloud. But the Vatican has not revoked the words either,” Reardon pointed out.

A Beijing-based researcher, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, also interpreted the Pope’s move as a subtle downplaying of his Hong Kong concerns to avoid a confrontation with Beijing at an “extremely delicate time”.

“Any wrong expression from the Pope’s mouth at this stage might jeopardise previous hard-earned efforts to build the [2018 bishop] agreement,” said the researcher.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pope strays from script to avoid mention of HK