Under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong SAR has autonomy in the management of religious affairs. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government cannot interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws.
The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which 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 Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. 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.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. Such limitations may not discriminate solely on the basis of religion.
Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government; however, they must register to receive government benefits, such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, the use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, the group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. The government determines whether a religious group’s application for tax-exempt status is accepted. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all NGOs, but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society and/or tax-exempt organization as long as they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. Falun Gong is not classified as a religious group under the law, as it is registered as a society, under which its Hong Kong-based branches are able to establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.
The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools built and run by religious groups, should they seek such support. Government subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.
Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land at concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.
The only direct government role in managing religious affairs is the Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and provides grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.
An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates that the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is comprised of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.
During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited elsewhere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), such as distributing literature and conducting public exhibitions. The group had an ongoing lawsuit against the Hong Kong government in 2012 to contest a requirement to obtain government approval for the display of posters; the retrial was scheduled for March 2018. In April Falun Gong practitioners conducted public protests against the treatment of fellow practitioners in Mainland China. In June Falun Gong practitioners displayed banners and posters calling on visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the persecution of Falun Gong and to bring Jiang Zemin, former head of the Chinese Communist Party, to justice. The Hong Kong Falun Gong Association said that it suspected that the Communist Party of China funded private groups that harassed its members at public events by surrounding them and yelling at them. The association also reported continuing difficulties renting venues for meetings and cultural events from both government and private facilities. The association suspected the cause of this difficulty was the central government’s pressure on venue owners.
According to the Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times, immigration authorities barred 43 Falun Gong practitioners from Taiwan from entering at the Hong Kong International Airport in July. The immigration authorities ordered the practitioners to return to Taiwan without explanation. The practitioners had intended to join an annual parade in Hong Kong peacefully protesting the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in Mainland China.
Some religious groups expressed concern that new PRC religious affairs regulations entering into force in February 2018 could have a negative impact on exchanges and interactions with counterparts in the Mainland.
A variety of government and media sources reported that faith leaders continued to be able to meet with detainees and prisoners of all nationalities. The Home Affairs Bureau functioned as a liaison between religious groups and the government.
Senior government leaders often participated in large-scale events held by religious organizations. The SAR government and legislative council representatives participated in Confucian and Buddhist commemorative activities, Taoist festivals, and other religious events throughout the year.