The 174-year-old Saint John’s Anglican Cathedral in Hong Kong proudly displayed the Chinese national flag during its Sunday morning prayer service on October 1, marking the 74th National Day of the People’s Republic of China.
The decision to display the flag inside the church has sparked mixed reactions among the congregation and the public, while some critics argue that it reflects the church’s closer alignment with Beijing.
Reverend Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, who is also a legislator in Hong Kong’s assembly, defended the move, stating that it is not uncommon to display the national flag during services in many places. He acknowledged that opinions on this matter vary, both online and offline, but emphasized that the Anglican Church has never separated the church and the state and has always aimed to “express more” to mark National Day.
The suggestion to place the national flag during church services was made by Canon Koon in May, shortly after his election to Hong Kong’s “patriots-only” legislature in December 2021. Critics argue that this legislature has become a mere rubber stamp for Beijing, particularly after the implementation of a repressive national security law in 2020 that criminalizes all forms of dissent.
Approximately 140 people signed a petition against displaying the Chinese flag at St. John’s Cathedral following Canon Koon’s proposal.
In his sermon delivered in Mandarin on October 1, Canon Koon attributed the opposition to “misunderstandings” and questioned whether a similar debate would have occurred if the British flag were displayed before 1997. He urged believers to have a more nuanced understanding of their country, acknowledging that every nation has periods that, when judged by modern standards, require improvement.
Anglican Bishop Matthias Der Tze-wo of Hong Kong led the Sunday service and explained that the flag was placed to commemorate National Day, stating, “We are here to pray for the country, and the flag is here to commemorate [National Day].”
The display of the Chinese flag during the service elicited mixed reactions from churchgoers. Some, like retired teacher Florence Hoo, expressed joy and a sense of unity between their national identity and religious beliefs. Hoo commended the move, noting the need to address misunderstandings among Hongkongers.
However, others, like social worker Veronica Chan, expressed discomfort, emphasizing that their attendance did not imply an endorsement of Canon Koon’s decision. Foreign domestic worker Theresa Dee remained indifferent, focusing on her personal faith rather than the display of the flag.
For decades, Hong Kong enjoyed greater democratic freedoms compared to mainland China, thanks to its mini-constitution, the Basic Law. However, these freedoms have dwindled since the implementation of the national security law, which criminalizes dissent and opposition to communism, according to human rights activists.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former Hong Kong bishop and prominent critic of China, was arrested in May and later released after a global outcry. He and five other trustees of a now-defunct humanitarian fund were found guilty of improper registration and fined HK$4,000 (US$511).
In 2021, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese discontinued the tradition of holding memorial masses to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989. Other religious and civic groups have also adjusted their practices to avoid conflicts with the pro-Beijing Hong Kong administration.