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Hong Kong: Vatican ‘concerned’ over arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen

By Vincent Ni, China affairs correspondent
Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen personally appealed to Pope Francis in 2020 to leave politics out of the selection of Catholic bishops in Hong Kong. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

The Vatican has voiced concern after Hong Kong’s national security police arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia’s most senior and outspoken Catholic clerics.

Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested along with the singer and actor Denise Ho, the lawyer Margaret Ng, and the scholar Hui Po-keung.

“The Holy See has learnt the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern and is following the development of the situation very closely,” the Vatican said in a statement.

Local reports earlier suggested the arrests were related to their roles as trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided legal aid and other financial help to people who took part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests that were quashed by security forces.

Hui was arrested at the airport as he was about to board a flight to Germany on Tuesday, local media reported. Another trustee, Cyd Ho, is already in jail for her alleged involvement in illegal assemblies.

Late on Wednesday evening, Hong Kong’s police confirmed the arrest on Tuesday and Wednesday of two men and two women, aged 45 to 90, for alleged “collusion with foreign forces”. The force said that all had been released on bail but had their passports forfeited under the national security legislation.

Last year, the city’s police department said in a statement that it was investigating the charity for suspected violations of the national security law. The fund has now been scrapped after the disbandment of a company that had helped receive donations through a bank account.

Hui, a former adjunct associate professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University, had once taught the exiled political activist Nathan Law. “If you want to punish someone, you can always find an excuse,” Law, who now lives in Britain, wrote on his Facebook page in response to Hui’s arrest.

In 2020, Cardinal Zen made a personal appeal to the Vatican in a letter, urging Pope Francis to leave politics out of the selection of Catholic bishops in the Chinese territory. He did not manage to meet the pope because, according to local media, the Holy See was at the time engaged in discussions with Beijing on the renewal of a power-sharing agreement on the ordination of bishops in the Chinese mainland.

This week’s arrests were the authorities’ latest move in enforcing the controversial national security law, which was imposed on the city in June 2020. The legislation bars secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces. They also came less than a week after the incoming chief executive, John Lee, was selected by a small number of elite voters on Sunday.

Although Beijing and Hong Kong authorities insisted the national security law had brought stability to Hong Kong after the 2019 mass demonstrations, activists pointed out that since the enactment of the legislation, at least 175 people have been arrested and more than 110 have been charged.

Responding to the latest arrests, the White House spokesperson, Karine Jean-Peirre, urged the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong to release Zen and the others who had been detained.

In the UK, Labour’s shadow minister for Asia and Pacific, Catherine West, said in a tweet that the arrests “are a further demonstration of China’s aim to stamp out opposition in Hong Kong, and are completely at odds with the freedoms promised to Hong Kong”. She urged the British government to “work with international partners to demand the release of those detained”.

Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch’s China senior researcher, said arresting Zen for his peaceful activities “has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years”.

The arrests were condemned by US politicians, with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a member of the senate intelligence committee, saying it showed the ruling Communist party and its leader, Xi Jinping, were “afraid of truth-tellers and labels them threats to national security. [Xi is] absolutely terrified of a 90-year old Catholic cardinal. Xi is a pathetic coward.”

Reuters contributed to this report

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Dive Deeper:
Hong Kong arrests Cardinal Zen, singer over activist fund
Group accused of ‘collusion with foreign powers’ under security law for providing legal aid to people 2019 protesters.
Hong Kong arrests Cardinal Zen (90) and colleagues for ‘security breaches’
Hong Kong authorities have reportedly arrested a 90-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal, a singer and two others on suspicion of colluding…
Arrested Hong Kong cardinal a fiery critic of Beijing
The 90-year-old retired Hong Kong archbishop who was arrested by Hong Kong police on national security charges has long been…
A Catholic cardinal and others are arrested on Hong Kong security law
The White House and U.S. politicians join others around the world in calling for the release of a retired archbishop,…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Hong Kong police bail Catholic cardinal arrested on national security charge
Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of the most senior Catholic clerics in Asia, and three others who helped run a now-disbanded…
Cardinal, pop star bailed in latest Hong Kong security arrests
Hong Kong (AFP) - A Catholic cardinal critical of Beijing was released on bail by Hong Kong authorities, local media…
Get all your news in one place