17 May 2022, The Tablet

Mixed church reactions to arrest of Cardinal Zen

Mixed church reactions to arrest of Cardinal Zen

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, is seen before Mass Feb 15, 2020, at St Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City.
CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

In a development that shone a fierce light on the relations between the Vatican and the Communist Government in Beijing, the archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 90, was arrested by national security police on 11 May, along with Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and Denise Ho Wan-sze, a popular singer.

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 and dismantled democratic freedoms. 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.

While the global response to the arrest, and the response of some fellow cardinals and leading Catholics, was one of outrage, the response of the Vatican, which in September 2018 agreed a secret deal with Beijing believed to stipulate respective state and church rights regarding the appointment of bishops, was muted.

The former British colony’s last governor Lord Patten of Barnes called the arrest of Zen “yet another example of how the Chinese Communist Party is hellbent on turning Hong Kong into a police state. The arrest of other decent and brave Hong Kong citizens at the same time doubles down on the wickedness of what the Communists are doing.”

The president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, said of the arrest of his “brother cardinal”: “To see a city that was a beacon for freedom, including religious freedom, move so radically and swiftly down a much darker and more repressive path is heartbreaking. To see a government in China break its promises made in an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, so repeatedly and blatantly, is appalling.” Cardinal Bo called for prayers on 24 May, when the Church celebrates the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China, for all those persecuted by the Communists, and “especially Cardinal Zen”.

For his part the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that he is “very sorry” about Cardinal Zen’s arrest and he hoped it would not complicate the Holy See’s dialogue with China. A key architect of the secret Vatican-Beijing deal, that comes up for renewal in the autumn, Parolin said Zen’s arrest should not be read as “a disavowal” of the deal. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, told the Italian television programme, Tg2 Post, that the Vatican’s dialogue with Chinese Communist Party officials was “not always easy”.

A Vatican statement 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.”

Zen is a longstanding opponent of the secret deal, which has made him a thorn in the side of both Beijing and the Vatican. In October 2020 he travelled to Rome, hoping to persuade Pope Francis 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 succeeds 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.

Meanwhile the Catholic University of America presented an honorary degree to Hong Kong human rights’ activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai as part of its graduation ceremonies this month. Lai, who converted to Catholicism in 1997, is in prison awaiting trial on charges of sedition after he was arrested under the 2020 national security law. The honorary degree was accepted by his son Sebastien.


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