A Scots minister has thrown open her church as a sanctuary for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Maggie Mathieson spoke of her dismay as she watched the lives of Hong Kong residents “crumble and shatter” since moving there more than 20 years ago.
The minister, a miner’s daughter from Cumnock, Ayrshire, works at the Kowloon Union Church, and told how her church’s doors were opened to protesters during some of the most intense protests the territory has ever seen.
Now she fears the ongoing clashes, which have seen up to two million protesters take to the streets, will have long-term devastating consequences as tourists flee and businesses shut down.
The Rev Mathieson said: “I am feeling sad as I see how this action is affecting our society.
“I am sad to see how the basic culture of the people is eroded away with each new day and how violence and destruction have taken over what was a peaceful movement on both sides. And sad to see the lives of thousands crumble and shatter.”
Protests began in response to a bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China from the former British colony.
But many commentators believe the action is being driven more by a fear from younger people that their identity is under threat from China. Violence between police and anti-government protesters intensified in Kowloon towards the end of October in a political crisis that is now into its eighth month.
Like many expats in Hong Kong, Maggie travelled there to work. She spent several years teaching before moving on to study theology and was ordained eight years ago.
She said: “I thought it was a good opportunity to see another country and to learn about another culture. It was not to be a long term plan – but somehow I got stuck.”
Maggie serves at Kowloon Union Church with two other pastors.
From her door she could see bamboo barricades, empty tear gas canisters and waves of protests followed by silence and precarious peace.
They decided to offer shelter to anyone who needed it, not to make a political point “but because it is the right thing to do”.
Maggie said: “The situation here is very different from the images you see in the news – the demonstrations happen in different areas every time – so we still continue with our daily work and go about our business as much as we can as normal.
“The differences are that many programmes and meetings are cancelled or if they go ahead, end early.
“The church has always had a strong social justice ministry and has opened her doors to accommodate and embrace many in society who are ignored or ostracized. We as a church decided this was also a situation where we had to live the faith we speak of.”
Describing the current situation she said the atmosphere around Hong Kong is “very low”.
Transportation has been severely affected, and people need to leave their homes earlier in the morning as it takes twice as long for regular journeys.
She added: “A normal daily journey of 15 minutes may take up to 90 minutes. Finishing times are earlier too because the MTR Mass Transit Railway (underground) closes its doors sometimes by 6pm, sometimes even earlier.
“All these factors drag down the general feeling of everyone. Hong Kong is one of the safest places I have lived in and now I see people will stay home and not venture out at night for fear of being caught up in a demonstration.
“This, in turn, has closed many small businesses, restaurants and the hotels are really feeling the loss of the tourist trade. People are uncertain of their futures.”
As the daughter of a miner Maggie said she understood the emotions linked with fighting for a cause. But she said the battle in Hong Kong is for democracy.
She added: “The miners’ strikes were and are I guess always a labour issue that is being fought for. We have a democracy in Scotland and union members could exercise their rights to demonstrate. Here this is a battle for democracy and for the voices of the people to be heard.”
Maggie said she supports the protesters, but not the methods being used and she condemned the violence being used by police. She has vowed to stay in Hong Kong, a place she has made her home.
She said: “Choosing to leave is a privilege I have that the majority of young people on the street do not have. They are not able to leave so neither will I.”