After a few days of postponement due to COVID, the trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, has begun.
The cardinal had been arrested in May, along with other pro-democracy activists, on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces.” He was eventually charged not on that basis—which could lead to life imprisonment—but for failing to register a fund to which he and the other defendants belonged. The defendants face a fine of HK $10,000 and have all pleaded not guilty.
The fund, called the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, was set up to provide legal, financial, and medical support to people affected by the government crackdown that accompanied the massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. It has since been disbanded.
Cardinal Zen’s arrest in May had sparked a wave of international outrage, contrasting with the Vatican’s relative discretion on the matter, which had announced simply that it was “following developments closely.”
On September 14th, on Pope Francis’ return flight from his trip to Kazakhstan, the pontiff had to answer questions about the case against Cardinal Zen and about religious freedom in China. His answers were evasive, to say the least. He said he was in favour of maintaining a “path of dialogue” with China and insisted on the importance of respecting the “Chinese mentality.” He also refused to describe China as an anti-democratic country, on the grounds that it is a “complex” country.
This prudence, which can be considered excessive, is explained by the desire of Vatican diplomacy to renew the agreement concluded with the authorities of communist China on the status of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic and signed for the first time in 2018. Cardinal Zen was extremely critical of the agreement in 2020, calling it “an incredible betrayal” of the courageous underground Chinese church.
German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero in early September, also criticised the Vatican’s reluctance to defend Cardinal Zen in the name of renewing the agreement: “We have abandoned him,” he said of the Chinese prelate. Cardinal Müller would have appreciated more outspoken support for the persecuted bishop at the consistory that took place in Rome at the end of August. “I would not want the silence of the consistory on Archbishop Zen to reveal the fact that this cardinal will be sacrificed on the altar of reason, in order to defend and apply the diplomatic agreement with Beijing. I feel this risk coming, and I feel pain,” he added.
The Chinese government’s objective remains unchanged: to place religion under the absolute control of the regime and the Chinese Communist Party.