Cardinal Joseph Zen: conscience of China

Cardinal Joseph Zen: conscience of China

Peter Westmore

With the Beijing Olympics just four months away, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop of Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, is one of the few Chinese people able to speak freely about religious freedom and human rights in China.

Appointed coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, he succeeded Cardinal John Wu in 2002, and was made a Cardinal in 2006, at the age of 74. The appointment was unusual, because the mandatory age at which bishops must offer their resignation to the Pope is 75.

The appointment was seen as a reflection of Pope Benedict's confidence in Bishop Zen, who had been an outspoken advocate of human rights and a public spokesman for the Catholic Church for many years.

Interestingly, Cardinal Zen wrote to the Pope at least twice, asking that he be permitted to step down as Bishop of Hong Kong. The Cardinal asked to be relieved of his responsibilities for the diocese, in order to allow him freedom to focus fully on the reunification of the Church in China and the re-establishment of Vatican-Beijing relations.

According to Cardinal Zen's press secretary, Benedict refused to accept the resignation, and asked Cardinal Zen to remain as Bishop of Hong Kong while continuing his work for the whole Church in China.

Cardinal Zen also asked that a coadjutor bishop be appointed.

Although Hong Kong is administratively separate from the mainland, Cardinal Zen was born in Shanghai, and during the 1970s and 1980s travelled to China to lecture in government-approved Catholic seminaries.

While there, he also had contact with the 'underground' Catholic Church, which is not recognised by the Beijing Government as well as the Catholic Patriotic Association, which is the 'official' body recognised by the regime.

When made a Cardinal, his appointment was seen by most Chinese Catholics as a sign of hope, although a spokesman for the Patriotic Association described the appointment as 'a hostile act'.

Bishop Wei Jingyi, a bishop appointed by Rome who is not recognised by the Chinese government, said that appointment was 'a great joy', and that Cardinal Zen was 'very trustworthy' and uncompromising in his dedication to the Catholic faith.

For many years, Cardinal Zen has been outspoken in his defence of human rights, political freedom and religious liberty, not only in relation to Hong Kong, but also in mainland China.

Within months of his appointment as Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, he spoke out publicly against an amendment to Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, the so-called anti- subversion law, which gave the Hong Kong Legislative Council power to draft laws which severely curtailed rights of association in Hong Kong.

Among its provisions, the new law would have permitted the government to ban any organisation which was banned in the People's Republic of China. That would include religious organisations and meditational practices such as Falun Gong, which has been brutally suppressed on the mainland. It would also have permitted police to enter properties and arrest people without a warrant.

On 1 July 2003, Cardinal Zen joined between 500,000 and one million citizens of Hong Kong in a peaceful protect against the proposed law. Ultimately, the government did not proceed with it.

In subsequent years, Cardinal Zen has attended prayer gatherings on the anniversary of the rally.

Religious liberty

The Cardinal has also called for free discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds of students were killed in June 1989 during a peaceful protest for democracy in China.

He has also attended prayer gatherings for the massacre victims on the anniversary of the protest and called for respect for religious liberty for all faiths.

Although there are only about 250,000 Catholics in Hong Kong, about four per cent of the population, the Church plays an important role in the provision of health and other facilities. It operates about 317 schools and kindergartens enrolling more than 264,000 children as well as six hospitals, 15 medical clinics, 12 social centres, 19 hostels, 13 homes for the aged and 19 rehabilitation centres.

In an interview published last May in BC Catholic, the official Catholic newspaper in British Columbia, Canada, Cardinal Zen said, 'In China there is no religious freedom for Catholics. People who travel there have the impression that there is perfect freedom, because they see many churches open, but still there is no freedom, because the Church cannot function as it should according to its divine constitution.'

Cardinal Zen also indicated that Benedict XVI hoped to see full freedom of religion in China.

'It was one of the desires of Pope John Paul II to visit China, to see freedom of religion in China, but unfortunately his wish remained unfulfilled.

'However, thank the Lord, Pope Benedict understands perfectly the situation in China. We hope under his guidance the Holy See will achieve a good agreement with the government, in spite of the negative actions from the Patriotic Association.' (BC Catholic, 28 May 2007)

To ensure the continuation of the Catholic Church's visible presence in Hong Kong, Rome recently appointed Bishop John Tong Hon, formerly Auxiliary Bishop of Hong Kong, as Cardinal Zen's coadjutor.

Bishop Tong, though born in Hong Kong, grew up in Guangdong (in mainland China). He was appointed Vicar General of the Diocese of Hong Kong in 1992, and was appointed Auxiliary Bishop in 1996. He has worked closely with Cardinal Zen for many years, and been a lecturer, with Cardinal Zen, at the Holy Spirit Seminary.

Cardinal Zen's inspirational leadership has attracted criticism; but he has served as a beacon not just for Catholics, but for all those committed to freedom of speech and liberty.

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