Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

New schools bill violation of religious freedom, says Roman Catholic Church

AP , HONG KONG

Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Church charged yesterday that a government-backed education bill would take away its control of church schools and violate religious freedoms.

Lawmakers are set Wednesday to vote on a measure that would put all private schools receiving public funds -- including some 100 Catholic schools -- under the control of management committees that would report directly to the government.

The Catholic schools, considered some of Hong Kong's best, educated many of the territory's elite in the British colonial era that ended when Hong Kong was handed back to China in July 1997.

Hong Kong's Catholic leader, Bishop Joseph Zen, has said the proposed change would pave the way for "government intervention" in church schools and create a harmful "politicized atmosphere."

A Church representative, Lina Chan, told The Associated Press yesterday that the bill violates Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, which guarantees religious freedom and says churches can continue to run their seminaries and other schools.

The Hong Kong education secretary, Arthur Li, called the church's fears "totally unfounded" and said the bill was intended to "promote participation, transparency and accountability in school management."

Education bureau spokeswoman Jeanne Tam said Tuesday the bill would not force religious groups to change the way they run schools.

After Hong Kong was returned from Britain to China, it received guarantees that Western-style civil liberties, including religious freedom, would stay in place for at least 50 years.

But the Catholic Church's advocacy on a variety of issues, including an ongoing fight over democratic reforms, has often left it at odds with the Hong Kong government.

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