Cardinal Zen’s Arrest Cools Hong Kong’s Catholic Community | hong kong


Activist Leung Wing-lai was in prison when he first met Cardinal Zen. In 2018, while Leung was serving time for unlawful assembly, Zen visited him in a remote Hong Kong prison.

On the day of the visit, Leung recalls being pulled from the prison workshop and led to a small outdoor space to have his first and only outdoor encounter while incarcerated.

“The officers seemed nervous and I didn’t 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 the conversation wasn’t about faith; instead, Hong Kong’s most senior Catholic cleric was interested in his life and his family.

“He said, ‘Remember, you can be angry, but don’t have hatred,'” Leung said, describing the experience as a rare moment of relaxation in captivity.

Leung Wing-lai received a surprise visit from Cardinal Joseph Zen in early 2018. Photo: provided

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 role in the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

The fund had ceased operations in 2021, after police said it was under investigation and asked trustees to provide details of its donors.

Zen was released on bail on May 12 and a source close to him said the cardinal was due in court on May 24, adding that he could be detained again if charges are brought.

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 remained largely silent so far.

In a brief statement released on May 12, Hong Kong’s Catholic Social Communications Office said it was “extremely concerned” about Zen’s safety. “We have always respected the rule of law,” the statement said. “We are confident that in the future we will continue to enjoy religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law.”

According to government statistics, there were 1.2 million Christians in Hong Kong in 2020, a third of whom are Catholic. Hong Kong’s churches are largely independent of the government, although Anglican and Catholic church leaders have in recent years aligned themselves with the Chinese government on policy issues.

Anne (a pseudonym), a long-time Catholic and retired, said opinions within the church were divided on Zen: some thought it was too radical, while others supported its outspokenness.

Those who wanted to speak out in favor of Zen feared that any public action, no matter how slight, would cause it more problems. Instead, Zen supporters kept him in their prayers and discussed his arrest privately, Anne said.

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

“Being religious is more than worshiping, we also have to do justice,” Anne said, wondering if having faith but not the means to act equals religious freedom.

“In the past, we reached out to others and never imagined ourselves to be in the same situation. Now who is going to help us? said Anne, referring to the efforts of the Hong Kong church community to support independent churches in mainland China, which are suppressed by the state.

The Reverend Professor 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 worshipers as an “expression of fear”.

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

This despite the fact that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told the 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 high cleric…is surely an attack on the Vatican. I expect that to have repercussions.

A staff member of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, who wished to remain anonymous, feared Zen’s arrest could end his prison visits. As a prison chaplain, Zen had access to people in custody and was not limited by a visitation quota, sometimes visiting up to three prisons a day, the staff member said.

From public figures such as media mogul Jimmy Lai to young protesters, the staffer said, Zen had given them peace and crucial emotional support. “This is the only time, other than talking to your lawyer, to really say what you think.”

The Reverend Peter Koon, a pro-government lawmaker who was the provincial general secretary of the Anglican Church of Hong Kong, 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 fine, I will pray for him,” Koon said.

Zen has been a strong 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 said could undermine free speech and policies. 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 told his personal story of joining the Catholic Church and his eventual appointment as Bishop of Hong Kong, but did not discuss his recent arrest.

In conclusion, Zen told the young devotees to stay true to their vocation. He said, “You have to think for yourself, not just listen to others.”

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