Benedict Rogers’ faith defines his human rights activism, he said, which focuses squarely on East Asia and China, where above, posters of President Xi Jinping hang on the wall of churches. CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters

Faith inspires fight for religious freedom

  • June 10, 2023

As defined by the Merriam and Webster dictionary, a crusader is someone “who makes an impassioned and sustained effort to bring about social or political change.”

And Benedict Rogers has dedicated his life to a crusade — that of defending the human rights and freedom of religion or belief of the oppressed masses of Hong Kong, China, Myanmar, Tibet and all of East Asia.

It’s work Rogers claims is fuelled by his faith.

“My involvement in human rights is closely linked to my journey of faith,” says the internationally acclaimed British human rights activist.

In Ottawa recently for the official launch in Parliament of the Canadian chapter of Hong Kong Watch, an organization he co-founded to defend the rights of the people of Hong Kong, he shared the story of his extraordinary life journey, the rediscovery of his Christian heritage, his conversion to Catholicism and his latest book, The China Nexus.

In an exclusive interview with The Catholic Register, he summarized his activist career which began when he was a student at the University of London and heard a speech on the importance of religious freedom by the courageous Anglo-Catholic human rights activist Baroness Caroline Cox.

This was the point in his life when his Christian faith, dormant for a while, was rekindled, he said. 

Following a conversation over tea with Cox, he travelled to Nagorno Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan where the majority population of Christian Armenians is constantly under threat of ethnic cleansing.

“This was my first experience of a war zone,” he said.

He then organized an appeal on campus for Nagorno Karabakh, where the 86-year-old baroness is still active as defender of Christian rights.

In 1997, Rogers moved to Hong Kong where he worked as a journalist and also started a local branch of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a human rights organization that works for a world free from religious persecution.

During his early years with CSW he worked with Shahbaz Bhatti, the murdered Pakistani Catholic politician who died standing up for religious rights and has been declared a Servant of God by the Catholic Church.

“I traveled with Shahbaz in Pakistan, and we missed being killed by a bomb by five minutes,” he recalled, when a bomb exploded at the hotel they had just left.

As leader of CSW’s East Asia team he came to know Cardinal Maung Bo of Myanmar, who was then Archbishop of Yangon. In 2007, he published a report “Carrying the Cross,” documenting the human rights abuses of Christians in Myanmar.

On numerous visits to Myanmar, he met Bo several times and had long conversations with him over dinner.

“The turning point came in 2011 when I was having dinner with the cardinal and I asked him what would be the right time for someone from another Christian tradition (Evangelical Anglicanism in his case) to become a Catholic,” he said.

The cardinal replied: “Whenever you accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. If you ever find yourself in that position, I would receive you into the Catholic Church in (Myanmar).”

Profoundly moved by what he describes as this “beautiful invitation” he decided to explore it further. After a two-year voyage of discovery, during which he read famous Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton, Scott Hahn, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and various papal encyclicals, he went to his neighbourhood Catholic church in London and spoke to the priest, Fr. Peter Edwards, who became his mentor.

At the end of another year and a half in which he was guided and supported by a circle of Catholic friends, including Lord David Alton of the UK House of Lords, he went back to Bo and said he was ready.

On Palm Sunday, 2013, he was received into the Catholic Church by Bo at the cathedral in Yangon, with Alton as his sponsor.

His life of human rights activism, passionately advocating for oppressed people and risking his life in the process, runs in tandem with his journey of faith, he emphasized.

Rogers’ advocacy on behalf of victims of tyranny has earned him the ire of the Communist Party of China which has banned him from setting foot in both Hong Kong and China, both countries dear to his heart.

A prolific author, he describes The China Nexus as “the book the CCP does not want you to read.” One chapter, titled “Christianity Under Fire: The Intensification of Persecution of Christians,” documents the alarming state of Christianity in China.

“What’s happening to Christians in China is the worst since the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s,” said Rogers, adding that when he first thought of writing his book, he knew he wanted to write about Hong Kong and Tibet, but thought it was important to include a chapter on Christians in China as well.

Rogers documents how the CPC is at war with religion, creating an Orwellian world of tyranny, forcing Christian pastors and congregations to display portraits of Chairman Xi Jinping and party propaganda, face accusations of terrorism and risk arbitrary arrest.

“Perhaps the most striking and visible sign of the crackdown on Christians is the destruction of thousands of Crosses and hundreds of churches,” he writes.

In Hong Kong, he said, the situation is a little different and people are still free to go to church, but religious freedom is under threat and Christian schools are under pressure to revamp their curricula to disseminate Communist propaganda.

Rogers expressed deep disappointment at the silence of Pope Francis on the repression in China.

“Despite being a pontiff well known for speaking out regularly on issues of justice, conflict and persecution, praying for one part of the world or another most Sundays when he prays the Angelus from his window over St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis has almost never referred to the repression in China,” he said.

But despite Beijing’s determination to bring the Church under its totalitarian control, Rogers lives his Catholic faith, lobbying, writing, speaking and pleading with world leaders and civil society to put an end to tyranny and religious repression.

Asked how Canadian Catholics can join his crusade, he said: “Pray, be informed, raise awareness and tell others. Also, raise issues of religious freedom around the world with your MPs and elected officials.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.