ROME -Cardinal John Tong Hon, administrator of the Hong Kong, announced Friday that the city will return to public Masses June 1, at the same time China’s parliament is expected to pass a new national security law that already has pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong taking to the streets.

“Thanks be to God that the situation is easing,” Tong said in a May 22 statement posted to the Diocese of Hong Kong’s website, speaking of the coronavirus pandemic.

Noting that public Masses have been suspended since February, he said daily Masses will start up again June 1, while public Sunday liturgies will resume June 7, on Holy Trinity Sunday.

For those who still fear they will be infected by attending Mass, Tong said that “for the time being,” they can fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending a livestreamed Mass and making an act of spiritual communion.

Since the number of people who can be admitted to churches is limited to half of the normal capacity due to social distancing requirements, Tong said that if some people wish to attend a weekday Mass in place of the Sunday Mass, that will also be allowed.

“I would like to thank everyone for being so considerate and accommodating,” he said, noting that, “The pandemic is far from being over. We must carry on with our preventive measures. When we stand by each other with hope and count on our Lord, I am sure peace will be with us.”

Yet Tong might have spoken too soon in his confidence that peace will abide, as his announcement came at the same time that China is attempting to pass a national security resolution in Hong Kong banning treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism.

The move has revived fears that Beijing is increasingly seeking to interfere with Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Since last June Hong Kong has been the site of massive pro-democracy uprisings and, at times, violent clashes between police and protestors due to a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The bill eventually was withdrawn, but large protests continued until the eruption of the coronavirus earlier this year.

The protests were described at the time by Chinese state media as “terrorism” and the result of foreign powers manipulating Hong Kong’s population. China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), opened Saturday, with national security legislation in Hong Kong fifth on their agenda.

According to the BBC, article four of the law is expected to be the most controversial. Among other things, it insists that Hong Kong must improve its national security, and that when needed, the Chinese Central government in Beijing can step in and set up agencies to help the territory fulfill security requirements in accordance with the law.

A semi-autonomous region granted certain freedoms the rest of China is not afforded as part of China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong was required to introduce security measures after the British returned the territory to China in 1997.

Hong Kong’s government has said that it would cooperate with Beijing to implement the law. The region’s leader, Carrie Lam – whose resignation was called for by protestors last summer but who refused to step down and is widely seen as pro-Beijing – said the new law would help crack down on illegal activities.

The NPC is expected to vote on a draft of the law May 28. If it passes, it will then be forwarded to China’s top legislature, the NPC’s Standing Committee, which is then expected to finalize the law and enforce it by the end of June, one year after pro-democracy protests began in Hong Kong.

Anger among those who fear the law will signal the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy has already flared up among a group of protestors who gathered at China’s Liaison Office on Friday.

Speaking to Asia News, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who established the Demosisto pro-independence party in 2016 with a handful of students, said he believes “China wants to take everything in Hong Kong, and end every link between the city and the international community.”

Similarly, Lee Cheuk-yan, a trade union leader and a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, said the new law signals “the complete disruption of Hong Kong’s autonomy…It is a sign that (Beijing) wants to take full control of city affairs.”

Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok echoed these concerns, saying, “Beijing is killing Hong Kong and is using the pretext of fighting the pandemic to prevent people from protesting. For the city, it is the saddest day since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.”

Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker and member of the Civic Party, said the submission of the draft law “is the saddest day in the history of the city.”

Italian Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of Asia News and an expert on Chinese affairs, wrote in an editorial that if the law is enforced, “it will end the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ on which Hong Kong’s return to China was based.”

“Under that notion, Hong Kong was allowed to maintain its freer way of life,” he said, insisting that if Hong Kong loses its autonomy, its economy would be hit as well as its civil liberties

“Many observers believe that China is afraid that pro-democracy parties might win a majority in the upcoming election for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council,” which are slated for September. A national security law, Cervellera said, “could be useful to frighten the city’s population.”

Should the law be passed, Jacky Hung, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong, said the move could also spark issues with religious liberty.

“We are concerned that the law will be used to suppress religious freedom,” she told Asia News, adding, “Hong Kong should adopt universal suffrage before adopting national security laws.”

Pope Francis in his Sunday Regina Caeli address at the Vatican prayed for Catholics in China on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians and Patroness of China, but he made no mention of the Hong Kong protests.

Praying for both lay people and pastors in the “great country” of China, he asked that Mary would guide and protect Catholics, “so that they are strong in faith and firm in fraternal unity, joyful witnesses and promoters of charity and fraternal hope, and good citizens.”

He assured Chinese Catholics that the universal Church, “shares your hopes and supports you in life’s trials,” and accompanies them, “so that the light and beauty of the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of whoever believes, may shine in you.”

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