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Church leaders, rights activists back Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen as court trial begins

Cardinal Zen and five others are charged with failing to register properly a fund that provided legal aid to pro-democracy protesters

As Cardinal Joseph Zen begins his trial in Hong Kong, a number of Catholic leaders and human rights activists have come out with statements of support for the 90-year-old bishop emeritus.

Cardinal Zen and five others are charged with failing to register properly a fund that provided legal aid to pro-democracy protesters.

An outspoken critic of Beijing’s communist regime, Cardinal Zen served as a trustee of the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” that helped pay legal and medical bills for protesters arrested and hurt during the 2019 demonstrations in Hong Kong.

These are the Catholic leaders, scholars, and human rights activists who have publicly expressed their solidarity with Cardinal Zen as his trial commences:

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, wrote in support of Cardinal Zen in Avvenire on September 23.

“Cardinal Zen is a ‘man of God’; at times intemperate, but submissive to the love of Christ, who wanted him to be his priest, deeply in love, like Don Bosco, with youth,” wrote Cardinal Filoni.

He concluded his statement, which he called “a testimony to the truth,” by saying: “Cardinal Zen is not to be condemned. Hong Kong, China and the Church have a devoted son in him, not to be ashamed of.”

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On Sept. 1, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, shared his disappointment that Cardinal Zen was not present at the meeting of the College of Cardinals in August.

“Perhaps the Church should be freer and less bound to power-based, worldly logic, consequently freer to intervene and, if necessary, to criticize those politicians who end up suppressing human rights. In this case, I wonder why not criticize Beijing,” Cardinal Mueller said.

“Zen is a symbol and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing, he is an influential, courageous, and much-feared figure by the government,” he said. “He is over 80 years old and we have left him all alone.”

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), offered his support shortly after Cardinal Zen’s arrest in May:

In a statement, he wrote, “My brother Cardinal, His Eminence Joseph Zen, was arrested and faces charges simply because he served as a trustee of a fund which provided legal aid to activists facing court cases. In any system where the rule of law exists, providing assistance to help people facing prosecution meet their legal fees is a proper and accepted right. How can it be a crime to help accused persons have legal defense and representation?”

Words of support and criticism of communist Beijing came from scholars, human rights activists and those who have fought for religious freedom around the world. 

Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org shared his assessment of Zen’s trial with CNA:  

“I would say that Cardinal Zen joins a long list of ‘white martyrs’ — those who suffer for the Faith. Often, like Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty in Hungary, they are abandoned by the Church which should be defending them. Cardinal Zen is a fighter for freedom and religious liberty – and a great inspiration for all those who work for religious freedom. I fear the Church in Hong Kong, like in mainland China, is facing a time of deeper struggle and persecution.” 

Paul Marshall, the director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, told CNA that Cardinal Zen’s trial confirms that Beijing is cracking down on dissent:

“The prosecution and trial of ninety-year-old Cardinal Zen for peacefully raising funds shows the extreme lengths to which the Chinese government will go to crush any vestiges of dissent and free religion in Hong Kong or the mainland. It further undercuts China’s 1997 promise of ‘one country, two systems’ when Hong Kong was returned to its rule and shows the Government cannot be trusted to keep its agreements.”

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