Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, is being tried with five others in Hong Kong for failing to properly register a fund set up to provide legal and medical aid to pro-democracy protesters. The 90-year-old churchman is highly respected in Hong Kong and was asked to assist in oversight of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund from 2019 to 2021. Those on trial with Cardinal Zen are Margaret Ng, an attorney, Denise Ho, a singer-activist, Hui Po-keung, a cultural studies professor, Sze Ching-wee, an activist, and former legislator Cyd Ho. They were arrested in May under Hong Kong’s national security law. Cardinal Zen has been free on bail since early May. The first day of the trial was September 26 in West Kowloon. The next trial date is scheduled for late October. If convicted, Cardinal Zen and the others could be fined a total of $1200 each, but no jail time.
Paul Marshall, Director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, believes that Cardinal Zen’s arrest and trial is an example of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cracking down on dissent. Marshall said, “The prosecution and trial of ninety-year-old Cardinal Zen for peacefully raising funds shows the extreme lengths to which the Chinese government will go to crush any vestiges of dissent and free religion in Hong Kong or the mainland. It further undercuts China’s 1997 promise of ‘one country, two systems’ when Hong Kong was returned to its rule and shows the Government cannot be trusted to keep its agreements.”
Cardinal Zen has received much support from other activists and Church leaders, while the Vatican has been relatively quiet on the matter. A statement registering their “concern” and that they are “following the development of the situation with extreme attention” was all the Holy See could manage so far. Cardinal Zen’s arrest and trial come at a time when the Vatican and Beijing are negotiating the terms of the renewal of the 2018 agreement on the appointment of bishops in China, which gives the CCP government considerable power in who serves as bishops in China and Hong Kong. The agreement is expected to be renewed this fall. Cardinal Zen has been an outspoken and fierce opponent of the agreement, calling it “an incredible betrayal.” For its part, the Vatican has said they have “chosen the path of dialogue” with China. Of course, Great Britain chose the same path in their negotiations on the turnover of Hong Kong to China, but China has not been faithful to that agreement. On what grounds does the Vatican believe the CCP can be trusted now?
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said it well, I think, when he expressed his support for Cardinal Zen and his disappointment in the response to his arrest. “Perhaps the Church should be freer and less bound to power-based, worldly logic, consequently freer to intervene and, if necessary, to criticize those politicians who end up suppressing human rights. In this case, I wonder why not criticize Beijing,” Cardinal Müller said.
For his part, Cardinal Zen remains steadfast in his devotion to the faith and to the struggle for human rights. He celebrated Mass after his first court appearance in May and said in his homily, “Martyrdom is normal in our Church. We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”
Pray for Cardinal Joseph Zen and those on trial with him, and for the whole Church in Hong Kong and on mainland China.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.