Hong Kong Catholics say prayer meeting blocked

Roman Catholic activists accused Hong Kong's government on Thursday of trying to block an upcoming prayer meeting aimed at showing solidarity with underground believers on the Chinese mainland.

The Hong Kong Diocese's Justice and Peace Commission tried to reserve a public park for the Oct. 16 gathering but was turned down and told the event was too politically sensitive, said Jackie Hung, a commission organizer.

Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, a harsh critic of Beijing, was scheduled to attend, Hung said.

Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government, however, denied censorship, saying the application was rejected because the park was too small for the expected crowd of up to 200 people.

"The decision was not related in any way to religious or political considerations," the Leisure and Cultural Services Department said a statement.

China's Communist government does not have diplomatic ties with the Vatican. It only allows worship in state-approved churches, but many Catholics belong to unregistered congregations. Such "house churches" are subjected to varying degrees of harassment by authorities.

But the Roman Catholic Church has the right to operate freely in Hong Kong, a former British colony promised Western-style civil liberties, including freedom of religion, as part of its special semiautonomous status.

Hung criticized the move as part of a recent government campaign to block events that may offend Beijing.

Earlier this year, Hong Kong officials also confiscated statues honoring pro-democracy protesters killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, saying activists didn't have permits to display them. The Chinese government still considers the 1989 demonstrations "counterrevolutionary."

"This type of self-censorship, this culture of fear is now so common in Hong Kong," Hung said in a phone interview.

Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor Director Law Yuk-kai said the territory's government was "using legal and administrative means to achieve political goals."

Hung said organizers plan to proceed with the prayer meeting but haven't decided on an alternative venue.

Cardinal Zen, the territory's highest Roman Catholic clergyman, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

More than 60 million Christians are believed to worship in China's independent churches, compared with about 20 million who attend state-sanctioned churches, according to scholars and church activists.