March 12, 2001

HONG KONG (AP)--Fanning controversy over the Falun Gong, the local Catholic church has attacked Hong Kong's top security official for publicly criticizing the spiritual group, which is banned on the Chinese mainland.

An editorial carried by this week's edition of the Catholic weekly Kung Kao Po said recent comments by Security Secretary Regina Ip criticizing the group may have defamed all religions.

"We think it is inappropriate for the government to use its power to make any comment on religious affairs, or to differentiate religions into different categories," said Father Louis Ha, editor of the Catholic publication.

The Chinese government banned the popular Falun Gong movement in July 1999, branding it [Chinese government's slanderous words]. The ban doesn't apply to Hong Kong residents, who enjoy special freedoms under a "one country, two systems" arrangement governing the former British colony's July 1997 return to Chinese rule.

The Hong Kong government, however, has recently begun speaking against Falun Gong, with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa labeling the group a "[slanderous word]" and Security Secretary Regina Ip calling it "[slanderous word]."

Local Catholic leaders have objected. The Kung Kao Pao commentary said Ip's criticisms, made during a discussion with lawmakers two weeks ago, "not only libeled Falun Gong, but may also have defamed all religions in the world."

"If they start differentiating different religions as 'right' and 'wrong,' such judgments may gradually extend to other areas, such as the right arts, the right movies, and even right thinking," Ha said.

A spokesman for the Security Bureau, who only identified himself by his surname, Ho, said it had no comment.

Falun Gong members, who staged an international conference here in January intended to draw attention to Beijing's often brutal crackdown, praised the Catholics' response.

"We express our gratitude to the Catholics for speaking words of justice on behalf of Falun Gong," said a local spokesman, Kan Hung-cheung, himself labeled by China's state-run Xinhua News Agency as a "backbone member of the [Chinese government's slanderous word]."

Despite Beijing's campaign of arrests and public vilification, many Falun Gong members in the mainland have defied the ban, arguing that their beliefs promote good health and morality.

Observers here say the government's response to Falun Gong could be a crucial test of Hong Kong's autonomy. ...