WASHINGTON — A notable media entrepreneur and religious freedom advocate currently imprisoned in Hong Kong was honored with an award at the 2021 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast for his commitment to advancing the mission of the Catholic Church as a layperson.
Jimmy Lai, the 73-year-old founder of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy publication critical of the Chinese government, was honored with the 2021 Christifideles Laici Award at the annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Tuesday at the Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Named after a 1988 apostolic exhortation written by Pope St. John Paul II, the Christifideles Laici Award is presented to lay Catholics who embark on individual missions “on behalf of the Church and the world” and work “to stir and promote a deeper awareness among all the faithful of the gift and responsibility they share, both as a group and as individuals, in the communion and mission of the Church.”
Lai, who also founded the now-defunct Hong Kong-based periodical Next Magazine, could not accept the award in person because he has been imprisoned in Hong Kong for the past 10 months.
Sharing Lai’s story at the event, National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Founder Joseph Cella reported that the activist was jailed because of “his efforts to defend and expand human dignity and to live out and uphold the mission of the Catholic faith” in addition to supporting “fundamental human rights in China.”
“It is an honor of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Board of Directors to salute and thank Mr. Jimmy Lai for his courageous work for freedom, human rights, justice and support for the Catholic Church in China as the 2021 recipient of the Christifideles Laici Award,” he announced.
The award expresses “honor and gratitude for fidelity to the Church, exemplary, selfless and steadfast service in the Lord’s Vineyard.”
Cella explained that Lai has consistently advocated for “a free press in China informing the world about the political and religious persecution that occurs every day in China.” He credited Lai with “inspiring millions to defend their God-given rights and supporting the dignity of the individual through his ardent support of the Catholic Church.”
Additionally, Cella praised Lai as “a man of extraordinary means serving ordinary men and women longing for freedom and the opportunity to fully and freely practice their faith.”
A video montage of Lai was played. The video included a clip of Lai asserting that “the [Chinese Communist Party] is very afraid of organization because if you have a faith, you could easily organize together and oppose them because our religion, which is the foundation of morality and values which the CCP does not have."
"This is where they are most vulnerable," Lai said in the clip. “Chinese people are looking for a faith in addition to their life."
In April, Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison for unauthorized assembly related to pro-Democracy protests in 2019.
After the montage concluded, William McGurn, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board who once served as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, accepted the award on Lai’s behalf.
McGurn noted that his “relationship with Jimmy is personal” because Lai is McGurn’s godson.
“He’s in prison today for a simple reason,” McGurn said. “His publications told the truth about China and Hong Kong. And though communism comes in many flavors — Soviet, Chinese, Cuban — the one thing that unites them all is that communism can never tolerate truth or truth tellers.”
According to McGurn, “Jimmy was received into the Catholic Church just before the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997."
"For many of us who lived through those times, it was a dark moment," McGurn said. "Jimmy’s baptism then came as a sign of hope amid the gloom, like a small green shoe breaking through the concrete.”
“Jimmy believes we were created for truth and that it is our job to speak the truth, especially … when no one else will at whatever the cost," he added. "How else could a man so willingly exchange the comfortable life of a Hong Kong multimillionaire for the prison cell of a Chinese dissident?”
McGurn recalled how he received an email from Lai’s wife shortly after his arrest containing a photo of the media entrepreneur in chains and handcuffs in prison. She asserted that "the security forces were doing it to Jimmy to humiliate him."
But McGurn said he told her not to worry since “the people of Hong Kong see those handcuffs and chains as badges of honor because every man, woman and child in Hong Kong knows that Jimmy chose those handcuffs and chains.”
Because of his personal wealth, Lai had the ability to leave Hong Kong and “live in one of his apartments in Paris and Tokyo and Taipei," McGurn detailed.
Stressing that “no one would have blamed him if he had,” McGurn remarked that “if you thought that was ever a possibility, you don’t know Jimmy Lai.”
“Jimmy submitted to the chains and the handcuffs as an act of solidarity with the thousands of fellow Hong Kongers far less famous than he is, people who did not have the choice he did and were likewise arrested,” McGurn added. “We are already seeing the fruits of Jimmy’s witness in the baptisms of some of his fellow prisoners. So while Jimmy may be stuck in prison, his soul remains free.”
McGurn compared Lai to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident who once wrote: “Bless you, prison. Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying on the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe but the maturity of the human soul.”
Urging the audience to pray for Lai and other political prisoners, McGurn told the audience to “never, ever let anyone tell you your prayers are wasted because there’s a good man unjustly held in a prison cell on the other side of the world who would tell you that your prayers are what keeps him going.”
According to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast’s website, the annual gathering was first held in 2004 “in response to Saint John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization.” In the past, prominent politicians, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Paul Ryan, have spoken at the event.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org