Hong Kong Christian Groups Feel New Scrutiny From Mainland

Hong Kong — For years, the Rev. Philip Woo, the feisty leader of a small Protestant church here, has delighted in testing the limits of China’s restrictive laws on religion. From his perch in Hong Kong, he has delivered fiery sermons on human rights, led seminars on social problems for mainland students, and ordained pastors in the mainland without permission from the ruling Communist Party.

But Mr. Woo, a longtime Hong Kong resident, was startled when he was summoned across the border recently for a meeting with officials from the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Over tea, he said, the officials rattled off a list of laws they said he had violated, and they ordered him to stop.

Hong Kong’s vibrant Christian community has long been a magnet for mainland Chinese visitors. Tens of thousands of people cross the border each year for Sunday school, seminars and megachurch gatherings in this former British colony, which enjoys greater freedoms, including religious liberties, than the mainland.

But as the government of President Xi Jinping has stepped up efforts to limit the influence of Christianity in the mainland, including a controversial campaign to take down crosses in parts of eastern China, the activities of some of Hong Kong’s churches have come under official scrutiny. The attention from Beijing has raised concerns here about encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy and prompted criticism from the city’s Christians.

“We thought China was more welcoming to religion,” Mr. Woo, 61, said. “Now we fear it is getting tighter.”

In recent months, Chinese officials have barred mainland residents from attending some religious conferences in Hong Kong, increased oversight of mainland programs run by Hong Kong pastors, and issued warnings to outspoken leaders like Mr. Woo.

“Many pastors are worried,” said the Rev. Wu Chi-wai, executive director of Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, a Christian group. “Some are reconsidering their work in the mainland.”

As a spiritual revival has swept through China in recent decades, the Communist Party, which is officially atheist, has generally grown more tolerant of people exercising their faith outside party-controlled churches and temples. Christianity is China’s fastest-growing religion, with at least 67 million followers, many of whom worship in independent, underground or unofficial churches, often with the acquiescence of the government.

But Mr. Xi has presided over a crackdown on civil society, with a focus on individuals and organizations with ties to foreigners, including lawyers, nonprofit groups and religious leaders. The party has long associated Christianity with subversive Western values, and over the past year, officials have accelerated efforts to demolish churches, shutter Christian schools, and remove crosses.

Chinese leaders have historically shown greater lenience toward Hong Kong, which was a hub for Christian missionaries under British rule. It is now home to about 850,000 Christians, 1,500 churches, a Christian newspaper and a Baptist university.

But during the pro-democracy protests last year known as the Umbrella Revolution, the party signaled its anxiety over the influence of Christians here who bring their teachings to mainland China. Pro-Beijing news outlets have pointed out that several leaders of the demonstrations were Christians.

In March, about 100 people from mainland China were barred from attending a gathering of more than 2,000 pastors and other Christians in Hong Kong, according to China Aid, a Christian human rights group based in Texas. The meeting was hosted by China Ministries International, a California-based group founded by Chinese-Americans that describes its goal as “the Christianization of China.” Pastors from China, the United States and Canada spoke on subjects including church-state relations and marriage. In interviews, several people who were blocked from attending the conference said they were warned by the police that going to Hong Kong would be “making trouble.” Some said they were monitored in the days leading up to the conference.

“We believe in Jesus, and that is not a violation of the law,” said Lu Jingxiang, a pastor from Anhui Province, in eastern China, who said he was told his travel documents could not be processed.

About 60 percent of Hong Kong’s churches were engaged in work in mainland China such as theological training last year, according to a survey by Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement. But spreading the gospel in the mainland can be difficult. Hong Kong residents are often treated as foreigners, and they are not permitted to establish churches, hand out pamphlets, proselytize or preach.

While provocative pastors like Mr. Woo have sought to challenge the laws in recent years, several leaders of large churches in Hong Kong said they adhered to the restrictions in the mainland. “We go to China to show care to our motherland,” said the Rev. Ho Kwok-tim, who leads Hong Kong New Life Church. “We are definitely not going to do anything that is in conflict with the country or the regime.”

The Rev. John Qian, a former pastor in Hong Kong who helps run religious charity programs in mainland China, said the authorities there had begun to more closely monitor his work over the past year. The police have told him he must notify them when he visits a mainland church, he said. And this year, when he ordered nametags and vests for a conference in Hong Kong, the mainland worker who handled the order was detained and the materials were confiscated, he said.

“This is an infringement on Hong Kong’s freedom and undermines ‘one country, two systems,’ ” Mr. Qian said, referring to the term used to describe the relationship between China and Hong Kong.

When Mr. Woo was called to the State Administration for Religious Affairs across the border in the city of Shenzhen last month, the authorities seemed most bothered by his aggressive use of social media to recruit mainland students for his seminars. He was also told to stop training mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong, he said.

After meeting with the officials, Mr. Woo signed a letter saying that he had violated a Chinese law that prohibits foreigners from conducting religious training without permission, and he was allowed to return home.

Since then, Mr. Woo has traveled to the mainland several times without problems. But he said he has halted the work of the Shenzhen branch of his organization, Christian Church of Chinese Ministry, and moved his staff to a remote location to avoid government scrutiny.

Shenzhen officials did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Despite the recent tension, some Christian leaders said they did not believe China was tightening its grip on religion in Hong Kong and that Mr. Woo’s situation was unusual. “The Chinese are friendly with some churches and unfriendly with others,” said the Rev. Lo Lung Kwong, a theology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He added, “They have their list.”

An expansive new security law adopted by the Chinese government this summer has exacerbated worries here. One provision of the law identifies religion for the first time as an area of national security. Hong Kong government officials have sought to reassure the public, saying the provision does not apply in Hong Kong.

Last month, about 10,000 people, the majority of them from mainland China, filled a convention center in Hong Kong for an annual gathering of Protestants known as Homecoming. The atmosphere was spirited and raucous, filled with song-and-dance performances that drew on themes from the Bible. “It is not as old-fashioned and traditional as China,” said Zhuang Bujin, 52, a homemaker from Fujian Province, in southeast China.

Pastors at the conference addressed issues not frequently discussed in mainland churches, several participants said, such as divorce and mental illness. “Here, the topics are not subject to religious or political censorship,” said Nie Xusheng, 42, a pastor from Chongqing, in southwest China. “In China, we wouldn’t have this many people gathered.”

David Zhang, 21, a student from Tianjin, near Beijing, said he was inspired by the emphasis on social action and the call to work together to root out evil, themes he said he rarely heard in the mainland. “When we’re in church back home, we’re sometimes a little restrained,” he said.

He said he believed Chinese society was becoming more accepting of religion but some people still perceived it as a threat, leading the government to overreact. “We can only pray that our actions will speak louder than the misconceptions,” he said. “We pray for our government and our neighbors to be enlightened.”