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Hong Kong Catholics cool as friends wait, watch and pray

Ask not for whom the midnight bell tolls on June 30 in Hong Kong: It tolls for the Christians and the democrats, as the switch to Chinese rule finally takes effect. Ask, though, what U.S. Catholics can do, and that’s a bit tricky -- whether one is talking about Christians just in Hong Kong or those throughout China. Prayer isn’t the only answer, but it is a genuine one.

E-mail may prove to be another, providing person-to-person links unthinkable not too long ago. Opposing Most Favored Nation trading status for China could be a third, though that could also backfire with Beijing blaming -- and punishing -- dissidents, democrats and Christians if it’s denied.

In a clutch of words, then, the Beijing-versus-the-Christians issue, including the newly disenfranchised Hong Kong Christians, is sensitive and uncertain.

The U.S. bishops, who as a conference have judiciously, by invitation, and only occasionally inserted themselves into the international debate on behalf of the beleaguered church elsewhere, have little room to maneuver on China.

First, there is the matter of trying not to stumble into whatever the Vatican is attempting to accomplish with both the underground and the above-ground church in China.

Next, there is the drawback inherent in the understanding that an episcopal conference does not move on these matters except with the invitation or at the urging of the bishops in the country in question. And it is quite unlikely that the Chinese Catholic bishops can issue such an invitation.

Fortunately, Hong Kong’s Catholics and democrats are not likely to remain silent -- unless silenced -- where their freedoms are concerned. So we can continue to keep track of the situation through them.

As NCR reported last year, many Catholics and democrats have deliberately not taken out foreign passports as an emergency escape hatch, but have committed themselves and their children to trying to carry their message of both Christianity and democracy into China with them, effective July 1.

Theirs is a cool form of courage.

What one is left with, nonetheless, is a sense of futility at not being able to do anything to actually support such courageous people.

We must, as they must, wait and see.

And wait for them to tell us, as Beijing inevitably tightens its grip, what they want us to do to help.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997