Hong Kong arrested a 90-year-old former Catholic cardinal for criticizing the Xi Jinping regime

Retired Hong Kong Archbishop Joseph Zen attends Bishop Stephen Chow’s episcopal ordination ceremony in Hong Kong on Saturday, December 4, 2021. Zen, the 90-year-old Catholic cleric arrested by Hong Kong police for national security charges, has long been a fierce critic of Beijing, along with the Vatican’s efforts to reach a working agreement with the ruling Communist Party. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) (Kin Cheung/)

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old Catholic cleric arrested by Hong Kong police on national security chargeshas long criticized Beijing’s control of religion and political monopoly, along with the Vatican’s efforts to reach a working agreement with the ruling Communist Party.

Zen was released from a police station on bail Wednesday night following his arrest along with other former trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Support Fund, which provides assistance to people arrested during the 2019 anti-government protests. The former Archbishop of Hong Kong has yet to comment on his arrest.

A police statement said the former trustees were suspected of endangering national security by making requests to foreign countries or overseas agencies and calling for sanctions against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Widely condemned abroad, the arrests fuel a campaign to crush all forms of dissent in the city under the national security law passed in 2020, a year after authorities quelled pro-democracy protests that challenged the government. from China in Hong Kong.

The crackdown is increasingly penetrating the city’s respected economic, religious and educational institutions, along with non-governmental organizations, many of which have closed their operations in Hong Kong. The city was promised freedom of speech, assembly and judicial independence when Britain handed it over to China in 1997, but critics say Beijing has reneged on its guarantees.

China’s Foreign Ministry responded to the criticism, with spokesman Zhao Lijian saying: “We firmly oppose any act that denigrates the rule of law in Hong Kong and interferes in Hong Kong affairs.”

hong kong cardinal arrested
China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951, after the party seized power and established its own church. Foreign priests were expelled and many of their Chinese colleagues spent decades in prison or labor camps. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

“Hong Kong is a law-based society, where no organization or individual is above the law, and all illegal acts will be punished by law,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.

Separately, the ministry’s office in Hong Kong issued a statement saying that “safeguarding national security is justified, foreign interference is purely futile.”

Zen had once sought to build bridges with China’s party-controlled Catholic Church by visiting Beijing-approved seminaries in mainland China. But he also said those experiences showed him the lack of religious freedom in China and fueled a deep mistrust of the officially atheist ruling party.

China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951, after the party seized power and established its own church. Foreign priests were expelled and many of their Chinese colleagues spent decades in prison or labor camps.

In recent years, the Vatican, particularly under Pope Francis, has been eager to come to terms with the Chinese government and bring the churches together.

Zen was especially scathing about attempts by some in the Vatican to strike a deal with the party over the appointment of bishops on the continent, a power traditionally wielded by the Holy See that Beijing claims for itself.

hong kong cardinal arrested
The Hong Kong Catholic Diocese issued a statement Thursday saying it was “extremely concerned” about Zen’s condition and safety. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) (Kin Cheung/)

In 2018, he warned that a deal between the Vatican and China that ceded too much authority to Beijing would put the country’s Catholic followers in a big “birdcage.”

“The communist government just wants the church to surrender, because it wants total control, not just of the Catholic church but of all religions,” Zen said at the time.

A tacit agreement was reportedly reached in 2018 whereby China submitted names to the Vatican for approval, but that has had little perceptible impact on relations between the sides. Zen accused the Holy See of selling out underground Catholics who have remained loyal to the Vatican.

Zen, a frequent blogger, posted about making a desperate trip to Rome in a personal effort to prevent an underground bishop from being replaced by an excommunicated one favored by Beijing.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said on Wednesday that The Holy See “learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention”.

The Hong Kong Catholic Diocese also released a statement Thursday saying it was “extremely concerned” about Zen’s condition and safety.

hong kong cardinal arrested
Zen took on an activist role after being appointed minor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, a year before Britain handed over control of the city to Beijing. He frequently drew the ire of China’s communist leaders, who called him an “agent of the Vatican.” (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) (Kin Cheung/)

“We have always defended the rule of law. We are confident that we will continue to enjoy religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law in the future,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.

Zen has outsized political influence in a city where Christians are a minority but many hold elite positions, particularly in government and education.

Born to a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932, Zen left for Hong Kong, then a British colony, in 1948, a year before the communists took power on the mainland.

In 1989, when Zen and others in Hong Kong watched student-led pro-democracy protests unfold in China before a brutal military crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square left many dead.

He took on an activist role after being appointed minor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, a year before Britain handed over control of the city to Beijing. He frequently drew the ire of China’s communist leaders, who called him an “agent of the Vatican.”

Zen backed the city’s pro-democracy movement and was an outspoken critic of proposed anti-insurgency legislation that officials were forced to shelve. He went on a three-day hunger strike to protest a government plan to reduce the influence of churches in publicly funded schools.

hong kong cardinal arrested
Joseph Zen. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) (Kin Cheung/)

The minor bishop took charge of the Hong Kong diocese in 2002 and Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in 2006, which he said signaled the pope’s focus on China. Zen retired from the Hong Kong post in 2009.

Also arrested on Wednesday was singer and actress Denise Ho, who has been outspoken on a range of issues, from the pro-democracy movement to LGBTQ rights.

Ho had previously been banned in mainland China and lost her commercial endorsements after publicly supporting a 2014 push to expand democratic rights known as the Umbrella Movement.

Ho was previously arrested in December after police raided an independent online news site whose board she had previously been on and charged her with conspiracy to publish a seditious post.

(with information from AP)

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