Cardinal Zen and the rise of religious persecution in China

Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen appeared in a Hong Kong court on Tuesday for “conspiracy to collide with foreign forces”. The charges against the cardinal are emblematic of a continuing deterioration in the city-state, which should prompt the Vatican to reconsider earlier attempts to pursue closer relations with China.

While the Hong Kong government has claimed the 90-year-old retired archbishop’s arrest was solely based on his involvement with the 612 Humanitarian Aid Fundhis outspokenness about The Chinese Communist Party’s Persecution of Christians suggest that there are other motivations for limiting his authority as a religious leader.

Zen has become bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong in 2002, was elevated to the rank of Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and retired in 2009. His activism in support of political freedom and the Catholic Church in China and Hong Kong defined his ministry.

In 2011, he embarked on a three day hunger strike to protest the Hong Kong Supreme Court’s decision to increase Chinese control over Christian education. Additionally, he gave financial aid to Catholics in mainland China and peacefully rallied Christians in Hong Kong in 2014 Occupy Central Movement and 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations. He also criticized the 2018 agreement between China and the Vatican.

The China-Vatican Agreement, strongly backed by Pope Francis and Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, intended to settle the issue of the appointment of bishops and smooth over divisions between the underground Church and the Catholic Patriotic Association sponsored by the state. The Vatican has also recognized seven excommunicated bishops who were chosen by the Chinese government. Critically, the 2018 accord gave the Vatican veto power over Beijing-appointed Catholic bishops. François hoped it would create a medium for “dialoguebetween China and the Vatican.

However, Zen said it would be “kill” and “sold” the underground church. He also expressed a deep mistrust of Parolin, seeing him as someone driven by politics rather than faith.

The China-Vatican deal could also have implications for Taiwan. In January, the Vatican announcement plans to remove Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Arnaldo Catalan from his post in Taiwan. It raised concerns that the Vatican could change its official recognition of Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with China.

The agreement was signed in a context of religious persecution in China. Members of the clergy who refuse to comply with Beijing’s orders are imprisoned and subjected to brainwashing and torture. In Hong Kong, Christian schools are required to teach national security law and priests have begun to self-censor. Hong Kong Catholics to fear that the national security law will further limit religious freedom. Even the Tiananmen Square Massacre Memorial Masses have been canceled this year.

The dire situation embodied by Zen’s arrest and growing crackdown on the church has drawn mixed reactions. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said “worryon the cardinal’s arrest. Parolin said he didn’t want Zen’s arrest affect the Vatican’s agreement with China, which should be renewed this autumn. Otherwise, the Vatican has been quiet on the Chinese Communist Party persecution of christians and other religious minorities.

The Vatican should cease its efforts to get closer to Beijing. The 2018 deal was renewed in 2020 and is up for renewal later this year. The Vatican shouldn’t renew the deal or take additional steps to transfer official recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.

Instead, the Vatican should speak more urgently on behalf of persecuted Christians in China.

Zen is the “new consciousness of hong kongand left its mark on Asia. While worshipers may feel “exhausted” by Vatican agreement, Zen is resolute in its defense of Catholicism. Hong Kong authorities can throw the Cardinal in jail, but they cannot imprison Christianity and the hope it offers to so many of the Chinese faithful.

This piece originally appeared in The daily signal

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