Scheduled for September 19, 2022, the trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 90, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, opened a week later, on September 26. After sitting for two days, the West Kowloon Magistrate's Court in Hong Kong adjourned Cardinal Zen's trial to October 26, Churches of Asia (EDA) reported.
The Paris Foreign Missions agency specifies that the trial was to last five days. Cardinal Zen and four co-accused were charged with failing to register the now-disbanded 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.
Arrested on May 11 under the national security law imposed by Beijing, for “collusion with foreign forces,” Cardinal Zen had been released on bail with a ban on leaving Hong Kong territory. Such a charge can result in sentences of three years to life in prison.
Alongside the cardinal, singer Denise Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng, academic Hui Po-keung, and Cyd Ho, a former parliamentarian (now in prison) are charged with failure to register the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund.” The fund provided financial, psychological, and legal support to those arrested during the 2019 pro-democracy protests. They have all pleaded not guilty.
There are 1,121 political prisoners in the former British colony, a figure updated on August 29 by the Hong Kong Democracy Council, according to the Italian Foreign Missions agency, Asianews. Many of them are well-known figures on the democratic front, such as Catholic media mogul Jimmy Lai.
Sentenced in 2021 for having participated in unauthorized demonstrations, the founder of the independent Apple Daily, now closed, will be tried beginning December 1 for threatening national security, Asianews reports.
Along with other activists and contributors, Lai is charged with “colluding with foreign forces,” a crime under the draconian security law imposed by Beijing in 2020. The High Court trial is expected to last more than 30 days: the businessman faces life imprisonment.
Accused by Beijing and Abandoned by the Vatican
In an article published by the Hong Kong press shortly after Cardinal Zen's arrest, Tony Kwok, a pro-Beijing academic specializing in the fight against corruption, said he was convinced of the guilt of the high prelate. This is because he received around 3.3 million euros from Jimmy Lai.
According to Kwok, the police want to know if this money was “used for subversive purposes” or to corrupt the cardinal. The Hong Kong scholar also suspects Cardinal Zen of working for the United States intelligence community – and therefore against China – as he visited the U.S. five times.
On the plane returning from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis preferred not to answer a journalist's question directly about the situation of the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. He simply asserted that Cardinal Zen was “an elderly person who speaks his mind.”
He urged people not to judge China, pleading for patient dialogue. The Pope also renewed his support for Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who has full responsibility for diplomacy with Beijing. It is a diplomacy that Cardinal Zen never hesitated to comment on severely. In particular, he had mentioned on his blog, on October 7, 2020, the Ostpolitik of the Holy See, of Cardinal Casaroli and Cardinal Parolin, in these terms:
“I am afraid that he [Cardinal Parolin] does not even have faith,” citing a 2015 speech by Parolin recalling the late Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. Zen hailed his success in establishing the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the communist countries of Europe, saying that “when you look for bishops, you don’t look for ‘gladiators,’ who systematically oppose the government and who like to show themselves off on the political stage.”
“I wrote to him asking if he intended to include in this description Cardinal Wyszynski, Cardinal Mindszenty and Cardinal Beran.” And he concludes: “There is no continuity between Benedict XVI, who said no to Ostpolitik, and Francis, who says yes to Ostpolitik. There is the continuity of Cardinal Parolin’s Ostpolitik.”
Lots of Support
Despite the astonishing attitude of the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Zen has garnered a great deal of support within the Church. Here are some of them:
German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke of the “unfair trial.” But he especially expressed his disappointment with the lack of support from the college of cardinals who met in August at the Vatican: “I hope he will not be abandoned. The extraordinary consistory would have been an opportunity for all cardinals to declare full solidarity with Zen.”
He told Il Messaggero on September 1: “The silence of this consistory on the Zen case inspires fear in me. Perhaps the Church should be freer and less bound to the worldly logic of power, therefore 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.”
“Zen is a symbol and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing. He is authoritative, courageous and very feared by the Chinese government,” he added. “He is 90 years old and we left him alone.”
Burmese Cardinal Charles Bo, president of the Episcopal Conferences of Asia, denounced the “police state.” In a statement, he wrote: “My brother the cardinal, His Eminence Joseph Zen, was arrested and is being prosecuted for the simple reason that he was the administrator of a fund which provided legal aid to activists facing lawsuits.”
“In any system where the rule of law exists, providing assistance to help people facing legal proceedings meet their legal costs is an appropriate and accepted right. How can it be considered a crime to help accused persons obtain legal defense and representation?”
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, on Twitter on September 26, implored: “Mary, Untier of Knots, against all odds we ask you to intercede for our brother Cardinal Zen, that justice might be done and heart consoled.”
Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of St. Mary’s in Astana, offered his prayers on Twitter the same day: “We ask God to protect Cardinal Joseph Zen, a loyal son of the Church, who is facing trial as an accused in Hong Kong. May his faith always support him and give him strength in this delicate moment. May Mary, Help of Christians, be at his side to give him courage.”
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher and prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, gave his support to Cardinal Joseph Zen in a long open letter published on September 23 in Avvenire. “This is a testimony of truth. Cardinal Zen is not to be condemned. Hong Kong, China and the Church have a devoted son in him, not be ashamed of.”
He cites his “moral and ideal integrity,” which prompted John Paul II to appoint him bishop and Benedict XVI cardinal. “Some consider him a somewhat nervous character,” he notes, “and who would not be so in the face of injustice and the demand for freedom that any authentic political and civil system should defend?”
“I still have to testify to two things,” adds the Italian prelate, “Cardinal Zen is a 'man of God,’ sometimes intemperate, but submissive to the love of Christ, who wanted him to be His priest, deeply in love, like Don Bosco, with youth.”