HONG KONG (AP) — Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old Catholic cleric arrested by Hong Kong police on national security grounds, has long been a fierce critic of Beijing’s control over religion and political monopoly, as well as Vatican efforts. reach a working agreement with the ruling Communist Party.
Zen walked out of a police station on bail on Wednesday evening after his arrest alongside other former administrators of the 612 Humanitarian Support Fund, which provides assistance to those arrested during the 2019 anti-government protests. The former archbishop of Hong Kong n has not yet commented on his arrest.
A police statement said the former administrators were suspected of endangering national security by making demands of foreign countries or foreign agencies and calling for sanctions against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Widely condemned abroad, the arrests follow a campaign to quash all forms of dissent in the city under the sweeping national security law passed in 2020, a year after authorities subdued pro-protests -democracy who challenged China’s dominance over Hong Kong.
The crackdown is increasingly penetrating the city’s longstanding economic, religious and educational institutions, as well as non-governmental organizations, many of which have shut down their operations in Hong Kong. The city pledged to retain freedom of speech, assembly and judicial independence when it was transferred from Britain to China in 1997, but critics say Beijing has reneged on its guarantees.
China’s Foreign Ministry hit back at the criticism, with spokesman Zhao Lijian saying, “We firmly oppose any act that denigrates the rule of law in Hong Kong and interferes in Hong Kong affairs.”
“Hong Kong is a law-based society, where no organization or individual is above the law, and all illegal acts will be punished by law,” Zhao told reporters during a daily briefing.
Separately, the ministry’s office in Hong Kong released a statement saying “safeguarding national security is justified, foreign interference is purely futile.”
Zen had once sought to build bridges with the Chinese Party-controlled Catholic Church by visiting Beijing-approved seminaries in mainland China. But he also said the experiences showed him the lack of religious freedom in China and fueled a deep distrust of the officially atheist ruling party.
China severed relations with the Holy See in 1951, after the party seized power and established its own church. Foreign priests have been deported and many of their Chinese colleagues have spent decades in prison or labor camps.
In recent years, the Vatican, especially under Pope Francis, has been keen to reach an agreement with the Chinese government and unite the churches.
Zen has been particularly scathing at attempts by some in the Vatican to reach an agreement with the party over the appointment of bishops on the mainland, a power traditionally wielded by the Holy See that Beijing claims for itself.
In 2018, he warned that a Vatican-China deal that ceded too much authority to Beijing would put the country’s Catholic faithful in a big “birdcage”.
“The communist government just wants the church to surrender, because they want total control, not only of the Catholic church but of all religions,” Zen said at the time.
A tacit agreement was reportedly reached in 2018 whereby China submitted names to the Vatican for approval, but it had little discernible impact on relations between the parties. Zen accused the Holy See of selling underground Catholics who remained loyal to the Vatican.
Zen, a frequent blogger, posted about a desperate trip to Rome in a personal effort to prevent an underground bishop from being replaced by an excommunicated one favored by Beijing.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Wednesday that the Holy See “learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following developments with extreme attention.”
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong also issued a statement on Thursday saying it was “extremely concerned” about Zen’s condition and safety.
“We have always respected the rule of law. We hope that in the future we will continue to enjoy religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.
Zen carries outsized political clout in a city where Christians are a minority, but many hold elite positions, especially in government and education.
Born into a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932, Zen moved to Hong Kong, then a British colony, in 1948, a year before the Communist takeover of the mainland.
In 1989, when Zen and others in Hong Kong saw student-led pro-democracy protests unfold in China before a brutal military crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square left scores dead.
He embraced an activist role after being appointed junior bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, the year before Britain ceded control of the city to Beijing. He frequently incurred the wrath of Chinese communist leaders, who called him a “Vatican agent.”
Zen supported the city’s pro-democracy movement and was a vocal critic of proposed anti-subversion legislation that officials were forced to shelve. He started a three-day hunger strike to protest against a government plan to reduce the influence of churches in public schools.
The junior bishop took over the Hong Kong diocese in 2002 and Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in 2006, which he said signals the pope’s focus on China. Zen retired from the Hong Kong post in 2009.
Singer-actress Denise Ho was also arrested on Wednesday.
Ho had previously been banned in mainland China and lost her commercial endorsements after publicly supporting a 2014 campaign for the expansion of democratic rights known as the Umbrella Movement.
Ho had been arrested earlier in December after police raided an independent online news site of which she once served on the board and accused her of conspiring to publish a seditious post.
Associated Press writer Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.