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Hong Kong fast-tracked security law criticized by leaders, including Catholics

Lawmakers vote during the second reading of the Safeguarding National Security Bill, also referred to as Basic Law Article 23, at Hong Kong's Legislative Council March 19, 2024. (OSV News photo/Joyce Zhou, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Hong Kong’s legislature has fast-tracked a controversial new law that some observers claim could see priests imprisoned if they do not reveal to the authorities certain crimes confessed during the sacrament of penance.

The United Nations and human rights groups have warned that the new law will further erode freedoms.

So-called “Article 23” was unanimously passed by the region’s pro-Beijing parliament, targeting a range of offenses deemed to be treasonous.

In a statement, the U.K.-based Hong Kong Watch charity said it was “especially profoundly alarmed by the suggestion made in remarks by Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok … that, under the new security law, the crime of ‘failing to disclose the commission of treason by others’ means that if a person knows that another person has committed ‘treason’ but fails to disclose the knowledge to the authorities within a reasonable time, that person is guilty of a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.”

However, church leaders have insisted that the new law will not, in fact, affect what is known as the seal of confession — the obligation on a priest to preserve inviolably the secrecy of anything discussed in the context of the sacrament.

In a brief statement, the Hong Kong Diocese said, “With regard to the legislation of Article 23 on safeguarding national security, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes that citizens have an obligation to ensure national security.”

“The legislation of Article 23 will not alter the confidential nature of Confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation) of the Church,” the March 15 statement said. However, it did not elaborate.

Days before the new law was passed, Ronny Tong, an adviser to city leader John Lee, said priests failing to report admissions of national security crimes during confession could face charges under it. At the same time, Lam, the territory’s justice secretary, told lawmakers, as quoted in the Financial Times: “If someone confesses that they are planning to assemble an army tomorrow and subvert the Hong Kong special administrative region or attack the country, these are very extreme scenarios … (but) it is difficult for us to make exceptions.”

A group of 83 lawmakers and public figures from across the world, including the U.S., Canada and South Korea, issued a joint statement March 19 expressing “grave concerns” over the legislation, which expands on the National Security Law imposed by Beijing in 2020, and criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

“The legislation undermines due process and fair trial rights and violates Hong Kong’s obligations under international human rights law, jeopardizing Hong Kong’s role as an open international city,” the statement said, calling it yet another “devastating blow” for freedom.

Chris Patten, a Catholic member of the U.K. legislature and the last governor of Hong Kong under British rule, described the new law as “another large nail in the coffin of human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong was handed back by Britain to China in 1997 under the principle of “one country, two systems,” which guaranteed the city a certain degree of autonomy. While Beijing and Hong Kong both insist this is still the case, critics and international rights groups say China’s grip on the city has only tightened with time.

Church leaders have often found themselves at odds with officials of the region, particularly when it comes to human rights and pro-democracy voices. Ninety-two-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen has been a frequent critic of the regime and a controversial deal between China and the Vatican that gives the communist authorities in Beijing a role in appointing bishops.

Michael Kelly writes for OSV News from Dublin.

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