Hong Kong National Security Police Arrest 90-Year-Old Cardinal Zen

Hong Kong national security police arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun on Wednesday for alleged conspiracy to collude with foreign powers. Cardinal Zen is a 90-year-old former bishop and senior figure in Hong Kong’s democracy movement. He is reportedly in frail health. Zen was arrested for being a former trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, a group that provided protestors financial relief for legal troubles and medical needs. The organization disbanded last year after police launched a national security law investigation against it. Also arrested were three other trustees of the fund: Denise Ho, the Cantopop star and activist; Margaret Ng, a lawyer and former lawmaker; and Hui Po-keung, a prominent academic. At The Wall Street Journal, Elaine Yu, Selina Cheng, and Francis X. Rocca reported on the potential reaction to Zen’s arrest and the Catholic Church’s silence on Hong Kong human rights issues:

The arrest of a cardinal, even one who has criticized the policy of the current pontificate, is likely to raise pressure on the Vatican to protest publicly. It could also make it harder for the Vatican to renew its controversial deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops when it comes up for renewal in October.

“This was a very grave error by the Hong Kong authorities,” said Francesco Sisci, an Italian China expert who teaches at Beijing’s Renmin University of China. “It needlessly aggravates relations with the West and the Christian world…and puts Cardinal Zen back at center stage.”

[…] The Vatican has avoided criticizing Beijing for its human-rights record. In July 2020, Pope Francis decided at the last minute not to deliver prepared remarks expressing concern about the clashes between the authorities and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. That September, the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, speaking in Rome, called on the Vatican to stand up for human rights in China, suggesting that it had failed to do so for diplomatic reasons. [Source]

Zen’s arrest could complicate the Vatican’s already difficult relationship with China. Shortly after his arrest, the Holy See announced that it “has learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention.” The U.S.-China Catholic Association said “many residents of Hong Kong do not consider Cardinal Zen anti-Chinese, but rather consider him a great patriot.” Zen has been a vocal critic of the Vatican’s rapprochement with China. He has repeatedly critiqued a 2018 secret deal that is believed to allow China to appoint bishops of its choosing, a power historically reserved for the Holy See. As Zen said at the time, “The Communist government just wants the church to surrender, because they want complete control, not only of the Catholic Church but all the religions.” The rapprochement is controversial in China, too. There is reportedly conflict between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is seeking closer ties with the Vatican, and the United Front Work Department, which has sought to impose more restrictions on China’s Catholics

Zen’s arrest is not entirely unexpected. Earlier this year, the Hong Kong outlet Ta Kung Pao, which is owned by the Chinese central government, published a blistering attack on Zen that accused him of meddling with Hong Kong, alongside other articles attacking the church and church-run schools. Zen had continued to visit activist billionaire Jimmy Lai, a practicing Catholic, in jail, and he also attended the trials of other Catholic activists. Zen’s arrest has sent chills through the city’s Catholic Church, which was already divided about how to proceed under the National Security Law, reported The Financial Times’ Primrose Riordan and Chan Ho-him: 

Local Catholic leaders recently decided to cancel annual commemorations of China’s bloody crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 for fear of violating the law imposed by Beijing two years ago, according to church insiders.

[…] In the latest incident, a diocesan administrator tendered their resignation over a posting on the “Catholic Way” Facebook page on April 27. The post, which was quickly deleted, summarized a television interview in which a local priest accused China of attempting to control religion in Hong Kong. The diocese said the administrator had resigned of their own accord.

[…] One Hong Kong priest said that no area of life in the city would escape the tightening of political controls.

“If you ask whether [local] priests are now more worried about the security law . . . I would tell you that everyone in Hong Kong is concerned about the law,” he said. [Source]

The Catholic Church is not the only religious institution under pressure in Hong Kong. At The Washington Post, Theodora Yu reported on the plight of Hong Kong’s Christian churches

A study by the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement last year revealed that over a third of churches were now more inclined to adjust the content of their preaching in light of the political situation in the city.

[… Peter Koon, an Anglican cleric who is the first member of a religious institution to be elected to Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislature,] told The Washington Post there is still space to talk about social issues within churches, such as the poverty gap and housing policies, and pastors need not overly self-censor. There is no conflict between faith and patriotism because loving the country is a “basic requirement” and religious freedom is “guaranteed in the Basic Law,” he said.

[…] John Chan, assistant professor at the Alliance Bible Seminary, noted that pastors have ceased to address politics in their sermons, whether online or in person. He said churches are devising alternative plans to operate, changing “the whole ecosystem,” so that “the eggs will not all topple at once.” [Source]

The international community reacted to Zen’s arrest with outrage. Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang called Zen’s arrest “a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years.” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director said the arrests were a “shocking escalation” and showed Hong Kong authorities’ “callous disregard for the basic rights of its citizens.” 

Chinese authorities brushed off the criticism. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “Hong Kong is a society ruled by law. No individual nor organization can be above the law, and all the illegal activities shall be punished in accordance with the law.” State-run tabloid Global Times published interviews with Peter Koon, the pro-Beijing Anglican cleric mentioned above, and Lawrence Ma, the chairman of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, in which both men defended the arrest of the nonagenarian Cardinal:

Peter Douglas Koon Ho-ming, a LegCo member and former provincial secretary general of the Anglican church in Hong Kong, told the Global Times on Thursday that the arrest of Zen showed that religious communities should also abide by the law, and everyone is equal before the law. 

The US prematurely made irresponsible remarks and even called for the release of Zen when the case was still under investigation and the facts of the case were unclear, Koon said.

[…] Imagine if a Hong Kong person commits crime in Canada resulting in injury or harm to that country, Canada would like such person to be charged, put to trial, and punished accordingly, Ma noted. 

“Western allies’ hypocrisy on this issue is appalling and their only sinister motive is to attack the rule of law in the HKSAR with a plot to undermine China,” he said. [Source]


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