Handle with care: Pastor says proper debate can heal Hong Kong's political divide

In the first of a series of interviews with key religious leaders, Christian Council chairman says non-violent civil disobedience has a role

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 11:43am

Christians should continue to speak up on social issues even if they have to engage in civil disobedience, a church heavyweight has said.

But the Reverend Yuen Tin-yau opposed violent means of expression, such as storming buildings or verbally abusing others.

He advised Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Beijing loyalists and Christian leaders to "be careful" how they handled critical voices if they were to heal the political divide in Hong Kong.

"It's healthy to have different voices in a society, and that people can fight for their goals in their ways … so personally, I had no antipathy towards [Occupy protesters] rallying on the streets, but I oppose people who destroyed the government's properties and insulted others," Yuen said, referring to the 79-day pro-democracy movement last year.

Yuen is a Methodist pastor who chairs the Hong Kong Christian Council, an umbrella group of 22 churches, denominations and societies such as the Anglican and Lutheran churches.

Christian clerics are divided on topics such as reform, Occupy Central and gay rights. The Reverend Chu Yiu-ming of Chai Wan Baptist Church co-founded the Occupy Central campaign and in June, Anglican Church secretary general, the Reverend Peter Koon Ho-ming, was criticised for suggesting that Hongkongers should "behave because a cat would be granted more freedom by its master for good conduct".

The Most Reverend Paul Kwong, Archbishop of the Hong Kong Anglican Church, suggested that Christians should keep quiet, just as "Jesus remained silent" in the face of crucifixion.

Yuen said churches should be "united and diversified" at the same time, and under this principle, "religious leaders should be careful with their speeches".

"If you use a metaphor, it has to be appropriate. For example, Koon's [analogy] was more prone to attacks, and if you ask me, I think it was unnecessary," Yuen said. "[Clerics] should understand the divergent views in society and try to express their views with respect for dissident voices."

Similarly, Leung, as "the leader of leaders", should "tolerate different opinions in society".

Yuen said that Leung, unlike his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, did not maintain friendly ties with critics. "Many of his remarks made the social atmosphere more disharmonious, and people followed his example and it affected society."

Yuen echoed comments in July by pro-establishment heavyweight Starry Lee Wai-king, who suggested that both Leung's "tough character" and the pan-democrats' oppositional style were to blame for deepened political divisions. But Yuen added that the pan-democrats' style was only to be expected, and there was no excuse for a leader who responded in an unforgiving way.

Political commentators have said Leung has been tough on critics, especially pan-democrats, partly because Beijing wants to tighten its grip over Hong Kong.

When asked if he had anything to say to the central government, Yuen pointed to Beijing loyalists instead and questioned whether they accurately reflected people's views.

"The central government has been laying its hands on Hong Kong affairs more and more often, and it was related to [whether] people told it … to trust Hong Kong," Yuen said. "Many people, such as the National People's Congress deputies, were only the central government's 'yes men' … How many people dare to tell Beijing that if you don't loosen your grip, Hong Kong will only get more divided?"

Yuen's chairmanship of the council expires in October.


Reverend Yuen Tin-yau

Age: 65

Education: Chung Chi College, Chinese University

Ordained: 1981

Formerly: president, Hong Kong Methodist Church

Currently: chairman, Hong Kong Christian Council (founded in 1954)

Family: Married, two sons


Protestants in Hong Kong

Followers: about 500,000

Denominations: More than 70

Congregations: At least 1,500

Iconic places of Worship: St John's Cathedral, Central (1849); St Andrew's Church, Tsim Sha Tsui (1906).

Education: The Protestant community runs 127 nurseries, 639 schools (260 kindergartens, 199 primary schools and 180 secondary schools), and founded Baptist University and Chinese University's Chung Chi College. Lingnan University has its roots in its forerunner, the Christian College in Guangzhou.

Social services: Runs seven hospitals, 17 clinics, more than 100 community service centres, 11 children's homes, 169 elderly services centres and nursing homes, and 59 rehabilitation centres for mentally handicapped, disabled and drug addicts.