Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong is being tried by the Chinese Communist government for allegedly failing to register a non-profit that provided financial and legal support to protesters arrested during the 2019–20 Hong Kong demonstrations. Prosecutors made their case last week, and the trial will resume on October 26.
The ninety-year-old Zen has become an international figure of resistance to the totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party, and a champion for democracy and religious freedom. This trial and a concurrent investigation are meant to silence him while the CCP negotiates with the Vatican over the second renewal of a secret 2018 agreement that gave the CCP control over the proposal of new bishops and legitimized seven regime-loyal bishops who had been ordained without Vatican approval.
If convicted of violating Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance, the penalty would be a relatively small fine; but the CCP would likely use the conviction to support charging Zen of colluding with foreign agents to undermine the government. Conviction of the graver charge carries a potential life sentence, but even a lighter sentence could mean death in prison for the elderly Zen. The stakes are thus high, and the judge’s refusal to allow the defense to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses indicates this will be anything but a fair trial.
When asked about Cardinal Zen’s plight in September, Pope Francis was reluctant to call the Chinese government “undemocratic.” “Yes, it is true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true,” said Francis. “Cardinal Zen is going to trial these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there.”
As the Vatican considers whether to renew its secret agreement with the CCP—an agreement that increased persecution of the underground Catholic Church in China—it should take to heart what Cardinal Zen “said” and “felt” over the years. His witness reveals him to be a great hero of the faith, of human rights, and of religious freedom, and reinforces why all people of goodwill should stand up on his behalf.
Cardinal Zen has for decades sought the Catholic Church’s independence from the Chinese state apparatus. China maintains an “official” church organ called the Catholic Patriotic Association, whose members’ primary loyalty is to the state. As one of the bishops ordained illegitimately by the CCP without the Vatican’s consent explains, “Love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church.”
After consulting with Cardinal Zen in 2007 on the pressures the Church faced under the CCP, Pope Benedict XVI stated in a letter to Chinese Catholics, “The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens . . . but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom.”
Cardinal Zen applauded Pope Benedict’s forthrightness and warned against a truce with the Catholic Patriotic Association when believers were denied such authentic freedom: “You see, the bishops, they can never meet, they can never sit down and talk together. They are always controlled by the government, and the so-called bishops’ conference only meets when the government calls them for a meeting, chaired by the government.”
Pope Benedict’s letter gave Zen hope that a beneficial agreement might be reached. But that hope has been dashed. In a 2017 book, Zen compared the Vatican’s China policy to Pope Paul VI’s compromises with the Soviet Union: “the Ostpolitik of the officials of the Roman Curia undermined all the efforts” toward real improvement for the Catholic Church in China. It is the same Ostpolitik—and its curial advocates—that Zen believes led Pope Francis in 2018 to recognize the formerly illegitimate bishops and further marginalize the underground Church.
Cardinal Zen understood that the 2018 agreement meant the Church was no longer free to speak, not just for her people, but against the CCP’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, including by forced abortions and sterilizations. “The resounding silence will damage the work of evangelization,” the cardinal said in 2020. “Tomorrow when people will gather to plan the new China, the Catholic Church may not be welcome.”
Cardinal Zen noted in 2020 that the agreement had not changed CCP policy prohibiting anyone under eighteen years of age from entering a church. Instead, the agreement helped the CCP to push underground Catholics toward the “official” communities. “They can no longer have their churches,” said Zen, “they can no more perform sacraments in private homes and the Vatican gives no more bishops to them.” Apart from Zen, seven other bishops continue to be persecuted by the CCP. As further evidenced by the Chinese government’s takeover of Hong Kong, toleration has ended.
The persecution of Cardinal Zen shows that appeasing the CCP is a dead end. The Vatican should publicly demand that China end its prosecution of Cardinal Zen as a precondition of continuing negotiations with the CCP. There is simply no reason to pursue rapprochement with such a perverse, dishonest government.
Instead, we need the spirit that led Pope John Paul II to proclaim against Communist governments, in his first encyclical Redemptor hominis, that “the curtailment of the religious freedom of individuals and communities is not only a painful experience but it is above all an attack on man's very dignity.”
Pope Francis has pursued significant inroads for religious freedom in the Middle East, and bishops worldwide speak forcefully for religious freedom in places like Nicaragua and Nigeria. That same courage is required now on behalf of Cardinal Zen, and of all Catholics, Christians, and other religious minorities in China.
Sean Nelson serves as legal counsel for global religious freedom with ADF International.
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