Arresting a 90 year-old Cardinal marks a new low for a Chinese Communist Party regime that had already sunk to shocking levels of inhumanity, barbarity, cruelty and mendacity. Cardinal Joseph Zen is, as the last Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten said yesterday, “one of the most important figures in the Catholic Church in Asia and in the Catholic Church’s advocacy for human rights in China and elsewhere.”
That he was released on bail within a few hours of his arrest is welcome in the circumstances, but he should never have been detained in the first place. Along with three others – popular singer Denise Ho, internationally renowned barrister Margaret Ng and academic Hui Po-keung – Cardinal Zen was arrested because he was a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund. The foundation, shut down by the authorities last year, had been established to assist protesters and political activists with their legal fees. The four have been accused of “collusion with foreign forces” under the draconian National Security Law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong two years ago.
Although Cardinal Zen’s arrest this time was not due to his religious activities per se, of course his courageous campaigning for human rights and democracy over decades has been inspired and informed by his faith. He has been a constant target of Beijing. In 2019, I attended a private gathering of Catholic legislators in Fatima, Portugal, to which the Cardinal and Hong Kong’s “father” of the democracy movement, devout Catholic Martin Lee, were also invited. China’s embassy in Lisbon tried to get the organisers to withdraw the invitation to them and, when that proved unsuccessful, sent a delegation of a diplomats to occupy the entire first floor of the hotel opposite ours and make multiple attempts to infiltrate our gathering. Most recently, in February the pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, Ta Kung Pao, devoted a full page to articles attacking Christianity in general and the Cardinal in particular.
And there are signs that religious freedom is increasingly becoming the next target in Beijing’s campaign to dismantle Hong Kong’s liberties. In a sense it is logical that, having gone after the protesters, pro-democracy legislators, civil society organisations, trade unions, political parties, independent media and academia, religion is next in line. It also makes sense given that the Chinese Communist Party has always felt threatened by religion and has persecuted Christians in mainland China for decades.
The question is, what is the Vatican going to do. Since 2018 it has had a deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops. The details of the agreement are still secret, but we know that it hands the regime the right to nominate bishops, it has led to several underground bishops being asked by Rome to step aside in favour of Beijing’s favoured candidates, and it appears to have bought the Pope’s silence. And far from leading to any improvement in religious freedom, it has emboldened the regime. Beijing thinks, having co-opted the Catholic Church, there is nothing to stop it cracking down on Christians even more intensely. Pope Francis has said almost nothing about the persecution of Christians in China, the dismantling of freedom in Hong Kong, atrocities in Tibet and the genocide of the Uyghurs. The fact that the Vatican press office expressed “concern” over the arrest of Cardinal Zen and was watching the situation with “extreme attention” was surprisingly welcome. And although one might have expected a more robust statement, the fact that anything was said at all shows just what a low bar of expectations has been set by the Vatican’s previous silence on the Chinese regime’s repression.
Chris Patten said yesterday that he hopes that “the Vatican and Catholics everywhere will protest about the arrest of a great Catholic pastor and advocate, and pray for his safety and well-being and that of the whole of Hong Kong”. He also called for a re-think of the Vatican-Beijing agreement. “This will presumably drive a nail into the coffin of the attempts by the Vatican to establish some sort of deal with China’s Communists, who regard any sort of religion as a threat to their tyrannous grip on power,” he said.
He is right. And the time has come for Catholics everywhere to make this point to the Vatican. Write to the Secretariat of State and make your views on Rome’s dodgy deal with the Chinese Communist Party known. Call on the Holy Father to speak out. Demand an end to the policy of appeasement which Rome has adopted towards one of the world’s most repressive, brutal, genocidal regimes. And pray for the Church in China and Hong Kong.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, and author of six books, including “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church”. His new book, The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, will be published in October.
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