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‘It’s a way to keep people in fear’: Chinese Catholics react to Cardinal Zen’s arrest

Chinese Catholics have expressed both fear and sadness at Cardinal Zen’s arrest

Chinese Catholics from the mainland see this week’s arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong as an act of intimidation and a signal from the authorities of worsening conditions to come.

“It’s a way to keep people in fear,” Peter, a Chinese Catholic, told CNA on May 11.

Peter, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said that he saw the election of John Lee as the new Hong Kong chief executive on May 8 as a key reason behind the arrest of the 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and other democracy supporters.

He suggested it was a gesture from Lee “that shows that he’s loyal to the party and he’s going to be tough on forces that are against the party.”

“So [Lee] wants to demonstrate that he is loyal” to Beijing and, at the same time, that “he is a man of action,” he said, noting there is a Chinese proverb that goes something like “a new governor has to show his muscle and strength.”

Lee, who is a baptized Catholic, formerly served as Hong Kong’s security chief and “played a leading role in the crackdown on the pro-democracy protests,” according to the Eurasia Group.

He will officially begin his five-year term on July 1. Lee succeeds Carrie Lam, also a Catholic, who held the post since 2017.

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“This probably foretells that in the future Hong Kong will become less free, more controlled,” Peter said. “And the Catholic Church in Hong Kong as an organized institution will be carefully, closely watched.”

Other Chinese Catholics have expressed both fear and sadness at Cardinal Zen’s arrest.

“Cardinal Zen is known as a voice of truth,” another Chinese Catholic told CNA with the request to remain anonymous.

The source said that the cardinal was seen as someone unafraid to share what is happening to the Catholic community, particularly regarding the underground community on the mainland, rather than “repeating what someone else has told him to say,” as can be the case with other clerics.

Cardinal Zen was born into a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932 during the years of the Chinese Communist Party insurgency against China’s Nationalist government.

At the age of 16, he fled Shanghai for Hong Kong a year before the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, many Catholics were arrested for refusing to comply with government campaigns to eliminate foreign influence and nationalize private schools. China severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951.

Cardinal Zen was ordained a Salesian priest in 1961 and later served as the Salesian provincial superior for China, teaching philosophy and theology in seminaries in the country from 1989 to 1996.

John Paul II named him a coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, a year before the British handover of the Hong Kong colony to China. Cardinal Zen became the bishop of the diocese in 2002, a post he held until his retirement in 2009.

As bishop emeritus, Cardinal Zen has been an outspoken voice as both a strong supporter of democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong and a fierce critic of the Vatican’s provisional agreement with Chinese authorities signed in 2018.

In a blog post in 2018, the Chinese cardinal called the Vatican-China deal an act of “suicide” and a “shameless surrender” to Beijing on the Vatican’s part.

After Beijing imposed its national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, Zen told CNA that the Catholics who had been arrested under the new law’s provisions were “simply putting into practice the social teaching of the Church.”

“In this moment, democracy means freedom and human rights, human dignity,” Zen said.

The cardinal was released on bail on May 11, hours after the news broke that he had been arrested.

Eric Yan-ho Lai, a Catholic researcher from Hong Kong who is currently a fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, wrote on social media that the arrest of Cardinal Zen was reminiscent of the persecution of Catholic clerics after the Chinese Communist Revolution.

He said that Cardinal Zen’s arrest “echoed the arrest of Cardinal Kung Pin-mei, who was jailed by the Communist Party as he refused to surrender to the state controlling the Church in the 1950s.”

At the time, Pope Pius XII highlighted the suffering of Catholics in China in his encyclical Evangelii praecones in 1951.

The pope wrote: “We have learned that many of the faithful and also nuns, missionaries, native priests, and even bishops have been driven from their homes, despoiled of their possessions and languish in want as exiles or have been arrested, thrown into prison or into concentration camps, or sometimes cruelly done to death, because they were devoutly attached to their faith.”

“Our heart is overwhelmed with grief when We think of the hardships, suffering, and death of these our beloved children.”

In Hong Kong, a person praying at a church at the time of Zen’s arrest told AFP that Catholics fear that religious freedom could be suppressed in Hong Kong in the future.

AFP quoted the Hong Kong-based Italian missionary Franco Mella as saying: “The arrest of Cardinal Zen is a blow for the entire church in Hong Kong, China, and the world.”

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