LOS ANGELES - Among the protesters in Hong Kong, many, such as Terence Lai, are prompted by their religious faith to take part in the demonstrations.
The 46-year-old community worker for the Hong Kong Christian Institute, a nongovernment organization, usually spends his time with low-income scavengers known as “cardboard grannies” — elderly female recyclers who sometimes run afoul of local sanitation laws.
Between protesters and police
Since June, however, Lai has worked to defuse tensions between protesters and police as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations have become increasingly violent, at times meeting with harsh crackdowns by police.
Christians, like others in Hong Kong, are divided in their politics. But Christians in the pro-democracy movement say they hope to be a voice for peaceful change.
Some pastors and religious workers, such as Lai, have taken “a courageous stand, standing between the protesters … and police,” said Kung Lap-yan, an associate professor in the divinity school of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and one of Lai’s former professors.
Hong Kong’s demonstrators rely on the internet for information, and Lai — mobile phone in hand — alerts them to police locations as he scours planned protest sites in an effort, he says, to avoid violent confrontations.
Lai said he’s “supporting the youngsters, protecting them from injuries during the movement (protests), and especially protecting them from the police.” He also offers conversation and counseling to young people who, in some cases, have parents on the police force, he said.
Chu Yiu-ming, a prominent Baptist pastor, was one of the founders of the Occupy Central movement that led to massive protests five years ago. Seventy-five-year-old Chu was recently handed a suspended sentence for his role in those protests, while several other organizers were given jail terms.
More Hong Kongers have taken to the streets since the effort in June by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to push through a controversial extradition bill with China.
The bill’s supporters have argued it is needed to bring to justice those accused of crimes on the mainland.
Following major protests, Lam suspended the bill but did not withdraw it, as protesters demanded. They are also insisting that charges be dropped against more than 700 protesters arrested since June; reversal of the government’s characterization of the demonstrations as “riots;” an independent inquiry into the police response; and universal suffrage, with direct elections for all seats in the legislative council and for chief executive.
Since the 1997 return of Hong Kong from Britain to China, the chief executive has been selected by a 1,200-member body, and those selected have all been loyal to Beijing. In the Legislative Council, complicated electoral rules have kept pro-democracy legislators in the minority.
Support for protesters
Now, more Christians are joining their fellow Hong Kongers in sponsoring rallies and taking part in protests that have brought millions to the streets.
“People here, they may not agree to all the protesters on what they did or what they’re going to do, but at least they’re standing on their side, trying to support them,” said William, a young man at a recent Christian rally.
Lam, a devout Catholic, is at odds with many of her faith. The Catholic Church has urged restraint, and Cardinal John Tong Hon and the 21-member Hong Kong Christian Council have asked for withdrawal of the extradition bill, as well as for an independent investigation into police actions.
Off the sidelines
In the past, churches have been on the sidelines, said Lo Ping-cheung, a professor of religion and philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“But this time, it is not a matter of politics,” he said. “It is a matter of the well-being of Hong Kong. So, if that (extradition) act is being passed as law… any of us can be arrested and be sent to China. There’s a very acute sense of insecurity,” he said.
The Christian hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” has become an unofficial anthem for the millions who have rallied, and is sometimes sung by church members and pastors standing between protesters and police.
A number of churches have opened their doors to those taking part in the protests, providing a safe haven.
Lai adds that some Christians are taking part in activist efforts, for example, sponsoring widespread screenings of the documentary “Winter on Fire,” which chronicles the 2014 student protests in Ukraine. He says dozens of screenings of the film have been held across Hong Kong, at least one disrupted by Beijing supporters.
Christian pastors and church workers say they’re mostly working as mediators, either in private or on the frontlines, trying to tamp down violence as they work for peaceful political change in Hong Kong.