90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen appeared before the tribunal in West Kowloon, southeast Hong Kong, on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, where he was charged with failing to properly register a relief fund for pro-democracy protestors, reports the local daily South China Morning Post.
Cardinal Zen, former archbishop of Hong Kong, was arrested in early May along with four other leading figures in the pro-democracy movement, including singer Denise Ho and lawyer Margaret Ng under the national security law.
These personalities were the administrators of a fund, now dissolved, offering to finance part of the legal and medical costs of those arrested during the major pro-democracy demonstrations of 2019.
They were arrested for “conspiring to collude with foreign forces,” a charge that carries a sentence of life in prison under the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.
But the court has so far only accepted the accusation of failure to register the fund with the police, which does not stem from the national security law and incurs a fine of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (1,190 euros) for a first conviction.
The prosecution said it had 10 boxes of exhibits and eight hours of video recordings to support the charges. All defendants pleaded not guilty on Tuesday. The trial will open on September 19… at the time when negotiations for the renewal of the China-Vatican agreement will begin.
After his appearance, the cardinal celebrated, in the presence of hundreds of faithful Catholics, a Mass dedicated to the churches of mainland China.
The investigation against the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was launched after one of the trustees, academic Hui Po-keung, was arrested at the airport as he was about to take up a post in a European faculty.
Cardinal Zen's arrest has sparked outrage in many Western countries, which accuse China of ending the freedoms once promised to Hong Kong.
The city's Minister of Security, Chris Tang, brushed off the criticism Monday in the local press, calling it “a classic smear campaign.”
The vicar general of Hong Kong, Msgr. Joseph Chan, attended the hearing on Tuesday, but made assurances that he did not represent the diocese there. Cardinal Zen “was my teacher, so I came,” he told AFP. Mr. Chan said he was mainly concerned about Cardinal Zen’s health, even though the latter appeared to be in good spirits.
Diplomats from several European countries, including Germany, France, Sweden, and Italy, attended the hearing on Tuesday.
After the audience, hundreds of faithful attended a Mass celebrated by the cardinal at the Church of the Holy Cross in eastern Hong Kong Island. “We must of course respect the rule of law, but using the law to oppress is certainly not the raison d'être of a rule of law,” Louise, a teacher, told AFP.
“When a man is the victim of unjust laws, the least one can do is to come and pay homage to him,” argued for his part Philip, working in the health sector.
The prelate dedicated the Mass to churches in mainland China, where millions of faithful cannot freely practice their religion under the regime of the officially atheist Communist Party which strictly controls religious institutions recognized by the authorities.
In his homily, Cardinal Zen criticized the agreement between the Vatican and China which allows the appointment of bishops by Beijing with the approval of the pope, considering that it was “misguided,” although starting from “good intentions.”
It would be necessary to reunite the faithful who are under the jurisdiction of the Church subservient to the Beijing regime and the believers in the underground Church, illegal in the eyes of the Chinese authorities,” he estimated. But “it seems that the time is not yet ripe,” he stressed, however, referring to the underground clergy who refuse to submit to the demands of the authorities.