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Let’s pray for Cardinal Zen

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Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, arrives at West Kowloon Courts in October 2020, to support pro-democracy activists. At a pre-trial hearing in Hong Kong in August this year, a judge announced that Cardinal Zen and four other defendants were to face a five-day trial from 19-23 September on charges of failing to properly register a now-defunct fund to help anti-government protesters. PHOTO: CNS, TYRONE SIU, REUTERS

By Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board  

If you wonder about China’s attitude to the Church, putting a 91-year-old on trial makes it pretty clear

“Martyrdom is normal in our church,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. “We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”

The cardinal preached those valiant words in a packed Hong Kong church on the same day he had made a court appearance.

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Accused of violating Hong Kong’s new “security” law and of colluding with “foreign powers,” Cardinal Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, pled not guilty after an 11 May arrest and detainment.

The cardinal’s arrest, alongside fellow pro-democracy advocates attracted international attention. Around the world, calls for the cardinal’s release and an end to this kind of political intimidation in Hong Kong resounded.

Many Western leaders fear the freedoms (including freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion) guaranteed to Hong Kong in 1997 when the city was returned to Chinese control are being quietly eroded, even erased.

Now the cardinal faces a five-day trial, originally set to commence on 19 September but temporarily postponed due to Covid. The charges leveled against him are based on his support for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided financial resources for pro-democracy activists to pay legal fees, including bail. The fund was disbanded in October 2021.

Under the new so-called national security law (officially the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in the summer of 2020, China has widespread ability to arrest voices of political dissent.

Further, the new law allows for those in custody to be extradited to mainland China. Sentences range from three years in prison to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Since the imposition of the law, more than 153 people have been arrested.

Influential US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi declared: “Zen’s arrest is one of the clearest signs yet of Beijing’s worsening crackdown as Hong Kong fights for its freedoms – and of Beijing’s growing desperation and fear that it is losing this fight.”
Since February, Catholic media have warned of a loss of religious liberty in Hong Kong.

The persecution of Cardinal Zen is particularly alarming: If someone of his stature can be arrested, how many other religious persecutions will follow?

Frank Wolf, a former American politician, fears for Cardinal Zen’s life. “I have been inside a Chinese prison, and it is grim to say the least,” he wrote in an essay for Fox News. “The imprisonment of 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen would be a death sentence.”

Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Zen, media mogul Jimmy Lai (who was baptised by Cardinal Zen in 1997) and lawyer Martin Lee (“godfather” of Hong Kong’s democratic movement) have all been outspoken advocates of democracy in Hong Kong, and all have been arrested for their efforts.

The words of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dignitatis Humanae” echo resoundingly: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.”

The document continues: “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

Wary of the infringement of the rights of our brother in faith, Catholics should watch with attention the cardinal’s upcoming trial. We must speak out on his behalf, not only for the aging prelate’s own protection, but because a defence of Cardinal Zen is a defence of religious liberty in Hong Kong and for Chinese Catholics.

In 2011, Cardinal Zen undertook – at the age of 79 – a three-day hunger strike to protest infringement of the rights of Hong Kong’s Catholic schools.

At that time, the cardinal declared: “God is the Lord of history. We throw all our worries on him. He takes care of us.”

May it be so. Let us pray for and live in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters in Hong Kong and around the world.

This edited analysis and comment first appeared at


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