The Church, Compromise and China: 90-Year-Old Freedom Champion Arrested in Hong Kong

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Cardinal Joseph Zen will follow in the footsteps of the saints if he is led into a prison cell to face detention for the rest of his life.

This grim outcome is possible after the recent arrest of the former bishop of Hong Kong in the city. He is accused of violating China’s national security law.

He has since been released, pending charges for his alleged involvement in a now-defunct organization that helped provide financial support to people accused of protesting for political reasons.

Despite his age, the cardinal showed solidarity with young people involved in the protests that took place in 2019, before the marches were banned on orders from Beijing.

Police say the cardinal not only supported the protests, but also called on foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong. If found guilty of this so-called crime, Cardinal Zen faces life imprisonment.

Human Rights Watch described the prospect as a “shocking new low for Hong Kong”. Meanwhile, the International Religious Freedom Summit said the arrest ‘for collusion with foreign forces is a deeply disturbing development in China’s ongoing crackdown on democracy advocates and now, apparently, leaders. religious”.

international shock

The White House has called for his immediate release. Lord Patten of Barnes, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said the arrest was “another outrageous example of how the Chinese Communist Party is determined to turn Hong Kong into a police state”.

Other Catholic leaders joined in the outcry. For example, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, tweeted from the United States, “Pray for 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen – who was wrongfully arrested by the Chinese Communists – and for all those around the world who suffer for their Catholic faith. Although separated by distance, we stand in total solidarity with today’s heroes and martyrs.

Others joined in the cry.

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Cardinal Zen, in Hong Kong, responding to an interview on the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican in September 2018 (Kyodo)

The Vatican takes a complicated position

However, the Vatican itself was somewhat mute in its response. He contented himself with saying: “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention”.

Later, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said, “The most concrete hope is that initiatives like this will not complicate the already complex and not simple path of dialogue.”

Compromise of the Church for China

This was an indication that Cardinal Zen has been a troublemaker for the Vatican, as well as for China. He was scathing about what he sees as unacceptable compromises made by the Holy See.

In particular, he disapproves of an arrangement by which the Chinese Communist Party appoints bishops who, with Rome’s approval, become members of the Chinese Patriotic Association, the only officially sanctioned Catholic church in China.

Its rules state that clergy “support the leadership of the Communist Party of China” and “practice the core values ​​of socialism.”

Cardinal Zen believes that such an approach manipulates the Church into becoming an arm of China’s authoritarian regime.

Alex Lo, a commentator for the South China Morning Post, says: “Most Catholic critics decry the Chinese state’s censorship and suppression of the so-called underground church in China, but Cardinal Zen goes much further in his implacable ideological opposition to the communist state. .”

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From left, retired Archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, lawyer Margaret Ng, Professor Hui Po-keung and singer Denise Ho attend a press conference to announce the closure of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, in Hong Kong, August 18, 2021. (HK01 via AP)

The Taiwanese alternative

Even Christians with a pragmatic view of China see the arrest of Shanghai-born Cardinal Zen as a signal of growing restrictions on religious freedom.

Unlike the mainland’s fundamentally atheistic government, the island state of Taiwan follows a pluralistic approach to religion and politics. Followers of many religions openly worship here, including Roman Catholics.

This is also true in Japan. And the Pope received a warm welcome during his visit to Tokyo in 2019.

As things stand, the Vatican is the only state in Europe to diplomatically recognize Taiwan.

In recent years, there has been speculation that the Vatican might change its position. The theory is that the pope will make a deal with China, letting Rome give up its special relationship with Taiwan, in order to become an official church on the mainland.

It would be a diplomatic blow for China, which is trying to isolate Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. Yet such a shift in allegiance would be condemned by bishops who argue that if the Vatican grants diplomatic recognition to China, it would legitimize an authoritarian state that routinely violates human rights.

Among those taking an intransigent position is Cardinal Charles Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Episcopal Conferences.

“Hong Kong was once one of the freest and most open cities in Asia. Today it has turned into a police state,” the Burmese cardinal said.

He continued, “To see a city that was a beacon for freedom, including religious freedom, embark so radically and quickly on a much darker and repressive path is heartbreaking.”

mother from china

Cardinal Bo called on believers in Asia and beyond to join in a week of prayer for China, which takes place in May.

A special shrine created by Chinese Catholics stands inside a church on the western peak of Shanghai, called the Sheshan Basilica. A statue known as Our Lady of Zosè, or the Mother of China, represents the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In Catholic art, it is common to show the Virgin crushing a serpent under her feet. In Shanghai, it stands on the head of a Chinese dragon.

Some Catholic theologians believe the serpent represents Lucifer. Saint Alphonsus considered him “a proud spirit, beaten and trodden down by this most Holy Virgin, so that, like a defeated slave in war, he is forced always to obey the orders of this queen”.

It is an image that might therefore appeal to those who pray for freedom from oppression. Yet this must also be an affront to those who see dragons as a force greater than God.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett

Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward. You can read his more articles and essays here.

Martha J. Finley