Secular or sacred? LA Times says some Hong Kong protestors tempted to become 'martyrs'

I have covered quite a few public protests in the past four decades and I have even taken part in two or three, after leaving hard-news work in a newsroom and moving into higher education.

If I have learned one thing about protests it is this: They are almost always very complex events. Protestors may have gathered to protest about a single issue or event, but they often are doing so for different reasons. While they are there at the annual Right to Life march, members of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians will have their share of differences with most mainstream Catholics and evangelicals who are taking part. Then there is the Secular Pro-Life network of atheists, agnostics and others.

I have also noticed that protestors are rarely silent, in terms of chants, songs and symbolic speech (think signs and banners). It is often important to listen to what protesters say and then (a) ask them questions about these statements, (b) quote the statements verbatim or (c) both.

This brings us to a long, long, I would say appropriately long Los Angeles Times news report about the protests that continue to rock Hong King. The headline: “Activists fear shattered glass may obscure demands of Hong Kong protest movement.” What caught my eye, online, was a reference to some of the protestors seeking “martyrdom.” Hold that thought.

I read this piece, of course, with an intense interest in whether some — or perhaps many — of the protesters where motivated by fears about Chinese crackdowns on Christians, Muslims and members of other minority faiths. Have these human-rights concerns continued to play a role in the protests. GetReligion readers (about 6,000 people have clicked that, so far) may recall Julia Duin’s recent post with this headline: “American media ignore 'Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,' the anthem of Hong Kong's protests.”

So what did protesters do and say, during that recent protest when they shocked authorities — including some sympathetic to their cause — by seizing Hong Kong’s legislative chambers? What kinds of groups took part and why?

I would still like to know answers to those questions. And who is talking about new “martyrs”?

Here is a key summary passage in the Los Angeles Times report:

Two days after the brief seizure of Hong Kong’s legislative building on the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese control, protesters are still fighting to define what they did. It will be hard for pragmatic, moderate citizens of Hong Kong to look past images of masked youth smashing glass and breaking gates and listen, even as many sympathize with the protesters’ core frustrations.

The takeover came after hundreds of thousands of peaceful marchers protested an extradition bill that would allow the semiautonomous territory to send suspected criminals to mainland China for trial. Opponents of the bill say it reflects Beijing’s growing influence over Hong Kong, which more than 2 million citizens rejected in mass marches in June.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, suspended the bill after violent clashes broke out between police and protesters on June 12. But suspension didn’t satisfy the protesters. They want full retraction of the bill, investigation into police violence, and, among other demands, universal suffrage.

“Democracy” is a key word here, of course. I get that. Politics is important.

However, I wanted to know if religious-liberty concerns were still on the list of “other demands” and concerns, in what is clearly a complex protest movement. I have been following these issues since I was in Hong Kong at the time of the 1997 handover and had a chance to talk to religious leaders who were worried about vague passages in transition documents.

These columns are old, but these issues have not vanished. Click here for: “Silence and Tension in Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong II: There's More to Life than $.”

So when and how did the term “martyr” enter this evolving drama?

Here is an essential piece of summary material in the Los Angeles Times report:

Leung Kai Chi, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies community identity and mobilization, said he and friends were confused by the protesters’ actions at first. There was no legislative meeting taking place at the time.

Then, the professor said, he thought of three protesters who had died in the last two weeks after leaving suicide notes in support of the anti-extradition bill movement. The legislative chamber takeover, he said, appeared to be an extension of such drastic measures.

“There’s a sense of desperation. They don’t know what else they can do,” Leung Kai Chi said.

The protesters themselves are struggling to hold together a decentralized movement that entered uncharted territory on Monday night. Some worry that a culture of martyrdom is settling over Hong Kong’s democracy movement, especially among the young.

At this point, there is a references to churches sheltering some protesters and a quote from a “pastor” in a church that is not identified. Apparently religious groups are involved in all of this, in some way.

Let me stress that, when it comes to religion, Hong Kong is a stunningly complex city. All kinds of religious institutions have offices and schools there, including many global networks, ministries and missionary groups.

It would not be hard for journalists to get input from religious leaders there — unless it has become too dangerous for them to speak out.

When police used tear gas and rubber bullets during mass protests on June 12, many of the youths didn’t go home, said local pastor Wong Siu-yung. Four churches opened their doors to protesters that night, where pastors and social workers tried to counsel crying, scared youths, many in their teens and 20s.

“They’re sad, they’re lonely, they’re very, very angry. They haven’t sorted out the emotions in their heart,” Wong said. “They don’t want go home, because what do they face? Parents who don’t understand them.”

By Monday, mental health and martyrdom had become dual themes of the movement.

Along the marching route and at the legislative building complex, candles flickered over white flowers and origami cranes at shrines to the three people who died, often referred to as “martyrs.”

So are we talking about secular people tossing around the “martyr” term or religious believers, some of whom would know that, historically speaking, the list of saints and martyrs in China is quite long?

We do not hear anyone address these issues, in this report. The faith angle quickly vanishes. There is only this:

Experts fear that glorification of the recent deaths will cause a contagious effect among already emotionally strained protesters. They’ve tried to prevent dramatization of the suicides, to little avail.

“Please don’t make it heroic and so sensational,” said Paul Yip, director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University.

Let me stress that this is a long and, at times, fascinating story. I am also aware that, in an age of horrifying cuts in many newsrooms, it is hard to put reporters where they need to be, when covering events overseas.

Still, I want to know: What are the protesters saying? What are they singing? What are they praying? Why are some of them willing to die?

Just saying.

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