Hong Kong National Security Police Arrest Outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the outspoken retired Bishop of Hong Kong, has been arrested by Chinese authorities for inciting a “separatist movement.”

The “612 humanitarian relief fund” is a fund that has been set up by the Hong Kong National Security Police to provide financial support for the victims of the recent typhoon. The Cardinal, who was arrested in his own home, is being charged with obstructing police officers and failing to comply with a court order.

HONG KONG, China— Hong Kong’s outspoken retired Cardinal Joseph Zen was detained by national security authorities on Wednesday as part of an investigation into a relief fund for persons participating in pro-democracy rallies, a move that might imperil a contentious reconciliation between Beijing and the Vatican.

People acquainted with the incident claimed Cardinal Zen, now bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was detained in a sweep on renowned pro-democracy personalities, including a pop singer and a former politician.

Hong Kong police said they detained four individuals for allegedly collaborating with foreign forces by pushing for sanctions to be placed on Hong Kong, using a broad national security statute enacted by Beijing nearly two years ago to suppress political opposition.

Persons arrested were trustees of a fund established to provide legal guidance, psychiatric treatment, and emergency financial relief to those who were wounded, detained, or incarcerated as a result of their participation in huge anti-government rallies in 2019. Late Wednesday, Cardinal Zen was freed on bail.

The 90-year-old cardinal has long advocated for more democracy in the Chinese city, which was restored to Chinese authority from Britain 25 years ago, and is a vocal opponent of Beijing’s Communist Party. He has also been at differences with the Vatican in recent years, criticizing Pope Francis’ accords with China that allow Beijing a vote in the appointment of Catholic bishops in the country.

Hong-Kong-National-Security-Police-Arrest-Outspoken-Cardinal-Joseph-Zen

During a New Year protest in Hong Kong in January 2019, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen carried a charity bucket.

Kin Cheung/Associated Press photo

“The Holy See is very disturbed by the news of Cardinal Zen’s detention and is closely monitoring the situation’s development,” the Vatican stated.

Since Beijing imposed a national security ordinance on the city in June 2020, police have jailed dozens of pro-democracy activists, including media executives and former MPs, as part of a crackdown on dissent. Following large-scale public demonstrations the year before, the policy virtually eliminated resistance.

Foreign countries, notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, have denounced the actions as repression, and some have imposed penalties on Hong Kong leaders.

The arrest of a cardinal, especially if he has opposed the present pontificate’s policies, is likely to put pressure on the Vatican to openly protest. It might also make it more difficult for the Vatican to extend its contentious bishop-appointment agreement with Beijing when it expires in October.

“The Hong Kong authorities made a major mistake,” Francesco Sisci, an Italian China scholar who lectures at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, said. “It exacerbates ties with the West and the Christian world in an unnecessary way… and returns Cardinal Zen to the spotlight.”

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong’s spokesperson said the office was still attempting to figure out what was going on and refused to comment more.


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On Tuesday and Wednesday, Hong Kong police detained two males and two ladies aged 45 to 90 and required them to submit their travel papers. They were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, police claimed, and they were “suspected of requesting sanctions against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, jeopardizing national security.”

The arrests happened only days after John Lee, a former police officer and security minister who is generally seen as a hardliner, was named Hong Kong’s next leader; he will take office on July 1. Mr. Lee announced his Catholic faith earlier this month.

According to those acquainted with the incident, local pop singer Denise Ho, who turned 45 on Tuesday and is renowned for her support of the city’s democracy movement, was detained at her house on Wednesday evening.

One of the persons claimed Hui Po-keung, a cultural studies expert, was detained at the Hong Kong airport on Tuesday, as did Margaret Ng, a high-profile attorney and former politician.

The fund was established in the early days of pro-democracy rallies in 2019, just after police used tear gas against demonstrators for the first time. According to its most recent annual report, it swiftly garnered contributions and gathered more than $30 million in funds by mid-2021. The charity announced at the time that it had helped more than 2,220 demonstrators.

Cardinal Zen claimed in 2011 that he received money from pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, the creator of the now-defunct Apple Daily tabloid, who is now imprisoned awaiting trial on unrelated national-security allegations. According to Apple Daily at the time, the donations were utilized to support charities and underground churches on the mainland and were not used for political objectives.

The fund announced last summer that it will shut down by the end of October. Later, police stated it was the subject of a national-security investigation and that they had given the fund a court order requiring it to hand over material under the security statute.

Since the national security sweep entangled the city’s major opposition politicians, Cardinal Zen has withdrawn from politics. Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing daily, accused the cardinal of using his priesthood to cause turmoil in Hong Kong in January.

Cardinal Zen worked as a priest in China in the 1980s, helping to restore ties between the Vatican and Catholics in the nation following decades of religious suppression. He has accused Vatican officials of selling out to Beijing in recent years. Senior Vatican authorities were irritated by his resistance to the Beijing-Vatican deal to recognize government-approved bishops in China, as well as the implications for the country’s underground churches.

Prior to the agreement being extended for another two years in October 2020, the cardinal flew to Rome in an unsuccessful effort to meet with Pope Francis and persuade him not to do so.

Cardinal Zen told The Wall Street Journal at the time, “I came to make one final attempt to convince the Holy Father to put religious considerations above political concerns.” He expressed concern that the agreement will enable Beijing to expand its influence on Catholics in China.

He said, “The church is already in the hands of the government.” “The church has already been destroyed.”

The estimated 9 million to 12 million Catholics in China are split between state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association-approved congregations and members of the so-called underground church, who defy official supervision.

The Vatican-Beijing agreement has approved some bishops, but dozens of Chinese dioceses remain without bishops. Officials from the Vatican have privately voiced their dissatisfaction with the arrangement, but have maintained that it is a significant diplomatic breakthrough until now.

The Vatican has refrained from condemning China’s human-rights record. In July 2020, Pope Francis opted at the last minute not to give planned statements regarding the violence in Hong Kong between authorities and pro-democracy protestors. Speaking in Rome in September, then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the Vatican to defend human rights in China, implying that it had failed to do so for diplomatic reasons.

The Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, stated in June that the crackdown in Hong Kong was a “issue of worry,” but that the Vatican speaking out “would make no impact whatsoever.”

Elaine Yu, Selina Cheng, and Francis X. Rocca can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively.

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