11 May 2022, The Tablet

Cardinal Zen arrested for foreign collusion

Cardinal Zen was one of three people arrested. He was then released on bail.

Cardinal Zen arrested for foreign collusion

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun arrives at West Kowloon Courts in October 2020, to support pro-democracy activists.
CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters

In a move which places enormous pressure on the Holy See, the authorities in Hong Kong have arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

The 90-year-old archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong was arrested by national security police today, along with Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and Denise Ho Wan-sze, a popular singer. Shortly afterwards, he was released on bail.

The three were charged with colluding with foreign powers, under the terms of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into force in July 2020.

The charges are based on the fact that they are trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund charity, that helps with the legal expenses of people arrested or detained on political grounds.

In a statement the Vatican said: “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention.”

The Holy See has elected to remain silent in public on the human rights atrocities in China, notably the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang province, and on the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong. Speaking out would risk jeopardising a still secret 2018 deal on episcopal appointments that it made with the Communist government in Beijing. It must now decide whether and how to break that silence.  

Zen is a longstanding opponent of the deal, which has made him a thorn in the side of both Beijing and the Vatican. In October 2020 Zen travelled to Rome intending to meet Pope Francis, hoping to persuade him to appoint a new bishop to Hong Kong who could be “trusted by the people” and not oriented towards appeasing Beijing. He handed in a letter requesting a half-hour meeting with the Pope but he did not receive any response and after a wait of some days returned to Hong Kong.

In December last year Francis appointed Bishop Stephen Chow SJ as the new bishop, who noted in an interview before his installation that “culture can be subversive”. The arrests of the three pro-democracy voices came three days after the Catholic John Lee Ka-chiu was declared the winner of an Election Commission ballot to select the next chief executive of the Hong Kong government. Before the ballot Beijing had imposed electoral reforms declaring that all candidates for public office must be “patriots”.

Lee, who will assume office in the summer, was the only candidate and he will succeed Carrie Lam, another Catholic. When he was security minister in 2019, Lee tried to pass an extradition law that allowed political prisoners to be extradited to the mainland. The bill triggered a year of protests that frequently brought Hong Kong to a standstill. In 2020 Beijing imposed its new National Security Law that criminalised many democratic liberties.

Zen’s arrest was anticipated by observers in January after the Communist Party-owned Hong Kong paper Ta Kung Pao attacked him in four separate articles. It pointed out Zen’s “association” with Jimmy Lai, the jailed Catholic newspaper publisher and complained that it was difficult for the government to “regulate or eliminate” religious groups or individuals who were “disruptive”.

The articles were seen as signalling a forthcoming arrest. In another major signal, this time on the Catholic Church side, the Vatican’s diplomatic head of station in Hong Kong, Mgr Javier Herrera Corona, was in February made apostolic nuncio to the Republic of Congo and Gabon. He has not been replaced. 

While many Catholic clergy who are not members of the Beijing-loyalist Catholic Patriotic Association in mainland China have been arrested and imprisoned, Zen’s is the highest profile case in Hong Kong by a considerable margin, making it a particularly emblematic test for the Holy See. The secret Vatican-China deal is up for renewal in the autumn.



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