Arrest of Cardinal Zen sends chill through Hong Kong’s Catholic community

The activist Leung Wing-lai was in prison when he first met Cardinal Zen. In 2018, while Leung was serving a sentence for illegal assembly, Zen visited him at a remote Hong Kong prison.

On the day of the visit, Leung recalls being pulled from the prison workshop and led into a small outdoor area to have his first and only meeting out in the open while incarcerated.

“The officers seemed nervous and I did not know what was going on … then I saw Joseph Zen and immediately understood,” Leung said.

“[Zen] said he had read the news and was worried about us.”

Leung said he was surprised that the conversation did not revolve around faith; instead, Hong Kong’s most senior Catholic cleric was interested in his life and family.

“He said ‘Remember, you can be angry, but do not have hatred,’” Leung said, describing the experience as a rare moment of ease in captivity.

Last week, Hong Kong police from the national security department arrested Zen, 90, and four others for alleged “collusion with foreign forces”. All of those arrested were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided legal and financial assistance to more than 2,200 people prosecuted for their part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

The fund had ceased operations in 2021, after the police announced it was under investigation and requested administrators to provide details on its donors.

Zen was released on bail on 12 May and a source close to him said the cardinal was set to appear in court on 24 May, adding it was possible that he would be further detained, should charges be laid.

While in the past the arrest of a public figure like Zen would have sparked fierce debate in Hong Kong, the local church community has been largely silent so far.

In a short statement published on 12 May, the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office said it was “extremely concerned” with Zen’s safety. “We have always upheld the rule of law,” the statement read. “We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law.”

According to government statistics, there were 1.2 million Christians in Hong Kong as of 2020, a third of whom are Catholic. Churches in Hong Kong are largely independent from the government, although leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches have in recent years aligned themselves with the Chinese government on political matters.

Anne (a pseudonym), a lifelong Catholic and retiree, explained that views within the church were split over Zen: some thought he was too radical, while others supported his outspokenness.

Those who wanted to speak out in support for Zen were worried that any public action, however mild, would create only more trouble for him. Instead, Zen’s supporters kept him in their prayers and discussed his arrest in private, Anne said.

Although local authorities denied the arrest had anything to do with religious freedom, Anne was worried that a crackdown on churches would spread from mainland China to Hong Kong.

“Being religious is more than worshiping, we also need to do justice,” Anne said, questioning whether having faith but not the means to take action amounted to religious freedom.

“In the past we extended a helping hand to others, and we did not imagine being in the same position. Now who is going to help us?” Anne said, referring to efforts by Hong Kong’s church community to support independent churches in mainland China, which are suppressed by the state.

Rev Prof Tobias Brandner, associate director of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described the radio silence among local churchgoers as an “expression of fear”.

Zen’s arrest came amid Sino-Vatican talks over the renewal of a power-sharing agreement on the ordination of bishops in the Chinese mainland. Brandner, who moved to Hong Kong in 1996 and is also a prison chaplain, expects Zen’s arrest to impede the talks.

This is despite the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, telling media last Saturday that Zen’s arrest was not a “disavowal” of the Sino-Vatican agreement, adding that he hoped the incident would not “complicate the already complex” dialogue between the two states.

Brandner said: “The fact that they did not refrain from arresting such a senior cleric … is surely an attack on the Vatican. I expect that this has repercussions.”

A staff member of the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong, who wished not to be named, was worried that Zen’s arrest would put a stop to his prison visits. As a prison chaplain, Zen had access to people in custody and was not limited by a visit quota, sometimes visiting as many as three prisons a day, the staff member said.

From public figures such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai to young protesters, the staff member said, Zen had brought them peace and crucial emotional support. “It is the only time, outside of talking to your lawyer, to really speak your mind.”

Rev Peter Koon, a pro-government lawmaker who was the provincial secretary general of the Hong Kong Anglican church, dismissed claims that Zen’s arrest had anything to do with religious freedom in the city.

“Cardinal Zen is not a bad person, he may be stubborn but I hope he will be OK, I will pray for him,” Koon said.

Zen has been a stern supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. In 2003, he openly opposed the government’s plan to enact national security laws under article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which critics warned could damage speech and political freedoms. Zen also took part in the 2014 Occupy Central protests, which called for universal suffrage.

In his first public appearance since the May arrest, Zen joined an online live stream hosted by the Hong Kong branch of the Society of Saint Francis de Sales, which brought him to the city in 1948 from Shanghai.

During the live stream, Zen recounted his personal history of joining the Catholic church and his eventual appointment as the bishop of Hong Kong, but did not touch upon his recent arrest.

As a closing remark, Zen told the young faithful to stay true to their calling. He said: “You need to think for yourself, not just listen to others.”

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