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‘Abandoned’ by the Pope: 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen to stand criminal trial under China in Hong Kong

The criminal trial of 90-year-old Catholic cardinal Joseph Zen is set to begin next week in Hong Kong, as the region continues to be transformed from a state which enjoyed autonomy to a region crouching under the lash of China’s authoritarianism.

The charges against the elderly Cardinal are widely seen as trumped-up, and a punishment for Zen’s work to ensure those arrested in pro-democracy demonstrations could have legal representation.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, senior editor William McGurn accused Pope Francis of abandoning Cardinal Zen and of failing to support the Catholic prelate against the Chinese authorities who have unjustly detained him.

“When a reporter asked about Cardinal Zen, the pope offered not a word of support, noting only that the cardinal “says what he feels” despite knowing there are “limitations.” The pope declined to even say China was undemocratic. All that was missing was a cock crowing in the background,” writes McGurn in a powerful piece highlighting Zen’s plight.

The Cardinal is due to appear in court in Hong Kong on Monday 26 September to begin four days of hearings in his trial on charges to his role as a trustee of a local humanitarian fund. He will stand trial alongside three other trustees of an organisation which provided legal and financial aid to those in Hong Kong who were arrested during the 2019 protests against a bill to allow political detainees in the Chinese city to be brought to the mainland for trial.

His trial is the latest in connection with the 2019 protests, which started with mass marches and demonstrations calling for more democracy in Chinese-ruled territory. Demonstrators were attacked, beaten and imprisoned by police. Zen, a native of Shanghai who served as Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 until 2009, has long been a supporter of democratic reform, religious freedom, and civil liberty.

According to sources close to the case in Hong Kong, the Principal Magistrate in the case tested positive for Covid, pushing back the trial. Following that, his trial was reportedly set to commence on Wednesday 21 September, but now it has reportedly been pushed back to next week.

The elderly cardinal and outspoken critic of Beijing was first arrested in May of this year along with four others on national security charges and for alleged “collusion with foreign forces”. All of those arrested were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund which provided assistance to more than 2,000 people prosecuted for their role in the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

He and others were accused of “colluding with foreign forces” and were arrested under the National Security Law which was imposed in June 2020, under which basic civil liberties were curtailed and free speech was criminalised.

The cardinal is just one of multiple prominent Catholics to be arrested in Hong Kong, following the jailing of newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, and pro-democracy activist and Catholic Agnes Chow who served a six-month jail term for attending an “unlawful” assembly in 2019.


In addition to speaking out in favour of democratic rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen has also been a forthright critic of the Holy See’s controversial agreement with the mainland Beijing government, which grants the Chinese Communist Party a joint role in the appointment of bishops to mainland dioceses.

The deal, first agreed in 2018 and renewed in 2020, has been the subject of Vatican-China negotiations in recent months, and a further two-year extension is expected to be announced shortly after the conclusion of Zen’s trial.

Zen and others were charged with failing to register the support fund, and were released on bail on 24 May. All have pleaded not guilty, and their defence is expected to argue that the group had the right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which has been in place since Britain handed the territory over to China in 1997.

Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, has been described as a “champion of democracy” in communist China, and is seen as a threat to ruling authorities in the eyes of commentators. Whilst his treatment has prompted international outcry, with the White House calling for his immediate release at the time of his arrest, and Lord Patten of Barnes, former British governor of Hong Kong, describing the arrest as “yet another outrageous example of how the Chinese Communist Party is hell-bent on turning Hong Kong into a police state”, the Vatican has faced criticism for seemingly failing to come to Cardinal Zen’s defence.

After he was charged on 24 May, the Vatican released a brief statement, saying that it would “closely monitor” events.

“Cardinal Zen is always in our prayers and we invite all to pray for the Church,” it read.

When asked about religious freedom in China and the elderly cardinal’s impending trial last Thursday, Pope Francis said that while it was “not easy to understand the Chinese mentality”, it has to be “respected” according to an article in Catholic News. Regarding Zen specifically, Pope Francis said: “He says what he feels and we see that there are limitations [in Hong Kong]”, adding that he prefers to “choose the path of dialogue”.

Taking to Twitter, Catholic journalist Sanchin Jose requested prayers for the cardinal, writing: “Today let’s offer one Hail Mary for our beloved Cardinal Joseph Zen who will face trial at a Hong Kong court probably this week.

“Please pray and retweet for our Cardinal who is bravely resisting Communism”.

In 2020, Pope Francis was accused of abandoning Zen after he failed to meet the elderly cardinal on Zen’s visit to the Vatican. The Cardinal was forced to return to Hong Kong after flying to the Vatican on his release from prison and trying to meet the Pope. He said he had come to Rome to express how concerned he was about the Vatican’s 2018 pact with Beijing and in the hopes of persuading Pope Francis to appoint a new bishop for Hong Kong who “can be trusted with the people” and not be held back by a desire to appease Beijing.

“It seems to me after one and a half years, the Holy Father must hear from his people in Hong Kong… so I have come to Rome once more for my people, and for the Pope,” Zen told the National Catholic Register in an October 2020 interview. While the Pope was said to be too busy, it was also reported that he was worried it would upset Beijing.

Pope Francis has also faced criticism for an apparent failure to properly condemn the persecution carried out by China’s communist government, which since 2018 has sent a million Muslim Uighurs to concentration camps and forced women into abortions.


It is unclear whether Chinese authorities will formally charge Zen with the national security crimes for which he was arrested, which has sparked concern among Hong Kong and Vatican commentators that he has “effectively become a hostage in Holy See- China negotiations.

In an op-ed for Fox News last month, theologian, contributor and commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Johnathon Morris, said a prison sentence would in effect represent a ‘death sentence’ for the cardinal.

“I have been inside a Chinese prison, and it is grim to say the least. The imprisonment of 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen would be a death sentence,” Morris wrote.

“Cardinal Zen’s arrest has sparked an international outcry and represents a new low for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. As a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and a longtime friend to the cardinal, whom I and many others admire, I am deeply concerned about his safety and well-being,” he added.

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