Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, was arrested overnight on May 11, 2022, along with four pro-democracy activists, for “collusion with foreign forces”: senior barrister and politician Margaret Ng, activist and pop singer Denise Ho, former parliamentarian Cyd Ho (already in prison on another charge), and former academic and activist Hui Po-keung.
The Holy See issued a brief statement on May 11, saying it “learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the situation with great attention.” The 90-year-old Chinese prelate was released on bail on the evening of May 11, along with the other defendants, except Cyd Ho.
The West Kowloon court charged them with failing to properly register a humanitarian fund of which they were administrators. The “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” established in 2019, raised more than $32 million for defense and medical costs for those arrested and brutalized during pro-democracy protests.
The fund was shut down last October under the national security law that came into force in July 2020. The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers have asked if the charity had an obligation to register under the Companies Ordinance.
The actual trial will begin on September 19, 2022. Without prosecution for threats to national security – apparently – the defendants will incur a maximum fine of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars, or 1,274 euros.
However, Cyd Ho is already in jail for participating in an unauthorized protest, a verdict that has hit various Democratic figures including Catholic tycoon Jimmy Lai who has been imprisoned since December 2020.
Questioning Sino-Vatican Agreement
The accusation against Cardinal Zen comes three and a half years after the Holy See signed a provisional and secret agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops. Decried by the Chinese cardinal as a “betrayal of the underground Church loyal to Rome,” the agreement was renewed in late 2020 for an experimental period of two years which will come to an end next September, at the time of the opening of the trial.
This led Edward Pentin, of the American newspaper National Catholic Register, to declare on May 11, 2022, “the latest developments will test the effectiveness of those accords and whether they have in fact offered the Holy See any true bargaining power.”
“The Vatican has always argued that patience is necessary before these agreements bear fruit and it will be of interest to see how they respond as the cardinal's case proceeds,” the Vaticanist continues. Cardinal Zen’s “arrest is also a significant test for his current successor, Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan, who took charge of the diocese last December ”, adds Mr. Pentin.
Mark Simon, friend and former associate of Jimmy Lai, explained to the National Catholic Register: “As far as Catholics are concerned, our religion is in direct conflict with communism or any form of totalitarian government. The communists know it, [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] knows it, and so there will be no quarter. Unfortunately, Pope Francis and the Vatican seem not to know that.”
Fr. Gianni Criveller, of the Italian Foreign Missions and Sinologist, specified on AsiaNews: “This arrest is a terrible calling card for the new Chief Executive John Lee - in charge of establishing a police regime in Hong Kong - elected with 99 % of the members of Election Committee on May 8, 2022.” Lee will not take office until July 1 [next], but they want to make it clear that he, or rather Beijing, is already in charge. Hong Kong's new head of government is a former Hong Kong security chief and a strong supporter of Beijing.
The Weakness of Francis’s “Fluid Diplomacy”
Andrea Gagliarducci on Monday Vatican commented: “Above all, the arrest appears to be a severe blow to the ongoing negotiations for the possible renewal of the agreement between China and the Holy See for the appointment of bishops. Or perhaps, it was simply a warning: nothing will change in China, not even with the agreement.”
“In situations like this, Pope Francis’ ‘fluid diplomacy’ shows all its weaknesses. Pope Francis focuses more on personal relationships than on institutional diplomatic activity. For him, it is crucial to open processes, even if these can be painful. The agreement with China for the appointment of bishops was one of these processes.”
And to conclude: “A fluid diplomacy, precisely because it is based on personal feelings and personal relationships. Diplomacy, therefore, is not influential. The pope is readily given the spotlight when he speaks of human fraternity, ecology, and sustainable development goals.”
“However, the pope is left out when it comes to the significant issues of the world. And this is also demonstrated by the arrest of Cardinal Zen, in a China where the Church seems to be left without actual points of reference.”
On June 13, on his blog, Cardinal Zen did not hesitate to attack the promotion of the Synodal Path in Germany in an article entitled “Discuss Together! Synodality? Anticlericalism?!”
“It is certainly a good thing to promote the spirit of 'discussing and walking together' in the Church, but the word 'synodality' has caused great concern to those brothers and sisters who know what has happened in the German Church in recent years,” he said.
After referring to the public letter of the few German bishops opposed to the Synodal Path, the Cardinal Emeritus of Hong Kong explained that "the kind of absolute democratic Synodality that the German Church admires is actually what the Dutch Church implemented after the Second Vatican Council. However, over the years, such reforms have not brought progress to the Dutch Church, but have brought about a great decline.”
Cardinal Joseph Zen then recalled with pain the scandalous watchword given in the “document issued by Rome, leading the discussion of this synod, also said: There is a historical malady in the church, called Clericalism (theocracy?). It is the main obstacle to the implementation of Synodality and needs to be overturned.”