Since sovereignty was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997, the Basic Law has provided the legal framework for the HKSAR. It upholds the principle of political autonomy in the HKSAR often referred to as “one country, two systems.” The Basic Law states that residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public.
The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These protections include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
The Home Affairs Bureau (HAB) functions as a liaison between religious groups and the government. The government has invited all interested groups, including affected organizations or individuals, to provide views on whether proposed measures discriminate on the basis of religion.
The only direct government role in managing religious affairs is the Chinese Temples Committee, which the secretary for home affairs leads. Its members are appointed by the chief executive. Since the 1960s, newly established temples have not been required to register under the colonial-era Chinese Temples Ordinance, and the committee at this point oversees only an estimated 24 of the region’s 600 temples. The committee oversees the management and operations of the 24 temples.
Religious groups are able to apply to the government to lease land at concessionary (less than market value) terms through sponsorship by the HAB. They still must “compete” with any other parties interested in the same land for the grant from the Lands Department. Religious organizations can apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation. Religious belief was not a barrier to public service, and a wide range of faiths was represented in the government, judiciary, and civil service. In addition, the Election Committee Ordinance stipulates that the six largest religious groups in Hong Kong hold 60 seats on the 1,200-member Election Committee tasked with nominating and voting for the region’s chief executive. The groups represented were the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, Hong Kong Christian Council (which represents Protestant denominations), Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association.
Religious groups are exempted from the Societies Ordinance, which requires that nongovernmental organizations register. Registration for religious groups remains voluntary and is needed only if a group seeks government benefits or receives a grant to provide social services. Spiritual movements such as the Falun Gong are not classified as religious groups and must register under the Societies Ordinance if they wish to establish offices, collect dues from members, or have legal status.
The government offers funding to cover 90 percent of the budget of schools built and run by religious groups should these schools seek such support. While such schools cannot bar students based on religion, they were permitted to provide religious instruction as part of their curriculum.
The government observes Christmas and the Buddha’s birth as public holidays.