Hong Kong's Catholics warned to brace for crackdown by Beijing

Monsignor Javier Herrera-Corona, the Vatican's unofficial representative in Hong Kong, delivered a stark message to the city's 50-odd Catholic missions before finishing his six-year posting in March: the freedoms they had enjoyed for decades were over, Reuters reports.

He told Catholic missionaries in Hong Kong to prepare for a tougher future as China tightens its control over the city and he urged his colleagues to protect their missions’ property, files and funds, according to four people familiar with the private sessions, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

"Change is coming, and you'd better be prepared," Herrera-Corona warned the missionaries, according to one of the people, who told Reuters he was summarising the monsignor’s message: "Hong Kong is not the great Catholic beachhead it was."

Herrera-Corona's message came amid a national security crackdown by Beijing on Hong Kong in the wake of anti-government protests in 2019, including the erosion of civil liberties, the arrest of dozens of pro-democracy activists, and perceived threats to the independence of the city's judiciary. Herrera-Corona reportedly warned that closer integration with China in coming years could lead to mainland-style restrictions on religious groups.

On the mainland, Catholics have long been split between an underground church loyal to the Vatican and a state-backed official church. The Vatican has no official representation in China after diplomatic ties were cut in 1951 beyond the presence of two unofficial envoys in Hong Kong, who operate from a walled villa in a Kowloon suburb. Herrera-Corona’s replacement as head of that unofficial mission is due to arrive in the next month.

Even before China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 that outlawed "collusion with foreign forces" in the wake of the pro-democracy protests the previous year, Herrera-Corona and other envoys at the unofficial mission in the city had started discreetly moving cases of archives overseas for safekeeping, according to two people familiar with the transfer.

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