Hong Kong’s Anglican cathedral will display the Chinese flag on National Day for first time but some aren’t happy

St John’s Cathedral, the oldest church building in Hong Kong, will display the Chinese flag during a service to mark National Day on Sunday for the first time, despite opposition from some Christians in the city.

The move was suggested in May by lawmaker the Reverend Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, a serving cathedral chaplain and a former provincial secretary general of the Sheng Kung Hui, the city’s Anglican Church. He previously said displaying the national flag in church was to show basic respect to the country.

The cathedral, built in the heart of the city in 1849, said the national flag would be placed near the pulpit in the nave during the 10.30am service conducted in Mandarin. Bishop of Hong Kong Island Matthias Der Tze-wo will serve as the celebrant, the highest-ranking priest to officiate the six services at the church on Sunday.

Canon Peter Koon came up with the flag proposal in May. Photo: Nora Tam

Koon, who will preach at the service, told the Post on Friday that placing the flag in the cathedral on October 1 would serve as a test, and the practice could be implemented on all future National Days.

“Hongkongers are simply overreacting,” he said, referring to the voices objecting to his idea of displaying the flag during church services.

More than 140 people signed an online petition against Koon’s flag-raising idea and other remarks he made in recent months on local churches’ relationship with the country.

But Koon said: “It is a day of celebration for those who believe the country has been performing well. If there are areas that require improvement [in the country], as Christians, we should maintain a positive attitude as well.”

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Most of the 11 churches contacted by the Post did not reply or said they had no plan to follow suit, except for Trinity Theological Baptist Church established in 2019.

The 120-member church said it would play a video of a flag-raising ceremony after Sunday’s service, a practice it would be carrying out for the second year in a row.

“We want to bring about civic education to the congregation, and expressing love for the country is a matter of civic virtue,” lead pastor Ricky Wong Wai-hung said.

But Methodist Church president Tim Lam Chun said his church had not discussed the national flag issue and there were no plans to make any changes.

“We believe some members of the congregation might have concerns about making changes,” he said.

The national flag issue has not been discussed by many church leaders. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

The Reverend Derek Chan*, head of a local Protestant church, said he would not accept the national flag on the premises during Sunday service. The church is located in a primary school run by his denomination.

Chan said political symbols should not have a place in worship because church members believed they were citizens of God’s kingdom.

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He noted that Article 148 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, stated that the relationship between local religious organisations and their mainland Chinese counterparts should be based on the principles of non-subordination, non-interference and mutual respect.

But he conceded the way authorities interpreted the clause could be a concern.

The Reverend Ray Wong Ka-fai, general secretary of the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China, a major denomination, said his church also had no such plan. Wong, also chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council, stressed that the congregation’s sole focus should be on the cross.

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The general superintendent of the Assemblies of God Hong Kong Association, the Reverend Timothy Yeung Tin-yan, also said his group had never discussed the issue.

A leader from a branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong said it had never discussed the matter because he had found no reason to raise the subject. The leader, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he had not heard of any other branch churches considering raising the flag.

Koon’s flag proposal followed a local seminar in May titled “Sinicisation of Christianity” jointly organised by two bodies overseeing Christianity on the mainland – the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council – with the Hong Kong Christian Council.

The interior of St John’s Cathedral in Central. Photo: Handout

The seminar was attended by 120 people including heads of the two mainland bodies and leaders of major denominations and theological schools in Hong Kong, including Koon and Anglican Archbishop Andrew Chan Au-ming.

Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated a Sinicisation campaign for all religions on the mainland in 2015, a move regarded by analysts as an attempt by the Communist Party to bring them under its control and in line with the country’s culture.

Mainland churches raise the national flag inside and outside worship halls. The national anthem is sung during the flag-raising ceremonies.

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Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Council said the two mainland bodies proposed the Sinicisation seminar topic. He added he did not think the aim was to persuade local churches to adopt their religious practices but he believed they wanted to share the concept of Sinicisation.

But he said churches in Hong Kong genuinely strived for separation of religion and politics, so it would be impractical for anyone to push for Sinicisation or the raising of the national flag in church premises.

“Pushing it in church is most difficult. If you push this and upset some church members, they can simply leave your church and go to another,” he said.

Professor Lai Pan-chiu says Hong Kong churches have no tradition of flying the flag. Photo: May Tse

Professor Lai Pan-chiu, of the cultural and religious studies department at Chinese University, said the seminar clearly aimed to gauge the response of local Christians and promote mainland religious policies.

He said local churches did not have a tradition of displaying the national flag given the city’s colonial background. Displaying the Union flag or Hong Kong colonial flag was never a requirement or custom before the change of sovereignty in 1997, he said.

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Some other local religious bodies are, however, more receptive to the idea of raising the national flag on their premises.

On Thursday, the Buddhist community held its first public National Day flag-raising ceremony at Po Lin Monastery at Ngong Ping on Lantau Island.

Buddhist Association president Sik Kuan-yun said the occasion represented the community’s firm support for the central and Hong Kong governments.

* Name changed at the interviewee’s request.

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