Catholic Cardinal arrested under China’s security law in Hong Kong


One of the Catholic Church’s most senior members has been arrested in Hong Kong for breaking China’s national security law, police have confirmed.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, is one of four people detained for being associated with a now-defunct organisation that helped protesters in financial need.

The others are a Cantopop singer and actor Denise Ho, ex-legislator Margaret Ng, and academic Dr Hui Po Keung.

They are accused of colluding with foreign forces. If found guilty, they could face life in prison. Human Rights Watch called it a “shocking new low for Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong Police told the BBC that the group was suspected of appealing to foreign countries or organisations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong, hence threatening China’s national security.

Cardinal Zen fled Shanghai for Hong Kong after the communists took over China 70 years ago, and is a former bishop of Hong Kong. He has long been a critic of the government in Beijing, speaking out for Catholics in mainland China and for more democracy in Hong Kong.

He once publicly admonished the Vatican for “selling out” to China by forcing bishops to retire in favour of replacements picked by Beijing.

“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years,” Human Rights Watch said.

The Vatican is concerned about the cardinal’s arrest, spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

Dr Hui, a scholar with Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, was arrested at the airport as he tried to fly to Europe to take up an academic posting, Hong Kong Free Press reports, citing two legal sources.

This is the second time Denise Ho has been arrested in as many months – she was detained late last year under the same law.

Margaret Ng has also been arrested in the past – in 2021 she was handed a one year suspended sentence for participating in unauthorised demonstrations. During the hearing, the barrister dismissed her own lawyer and gave such a rousing speech, the court erupted into applause.

Hong Kong Police told the BBC the four defendants would be released on bail, but must hand over their passports.

They are believed to have been associated with the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters pay their legal and medical fees.

The organisation was disbanded last year after the national security police demanded it hand over sensitive information including details about its members and donors.

Scores of pro-democracy activists and protesters in Hong Kong have been arrested under the national security law since it was imposed by China in 2020.

It essentially bans sedition, secession and treason, and therefore makes it easier for authorities to crack down on protesters and punish them.

The arrests come days after the Chinese government appointed a new hard-line pro-Beijing leader for Hong Kong, John Lee Ka-chiu.

“The arrests… [are] an ominous sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong is only going to escalate,” Human Rights Watch said.

China and the Church
China broke off diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951, and many of the nation’s Catholics face the choice of attending state-sanctioned churches approved by Beijing or worshipping in “underground” congregations.

Relations between the Vatican and China have been strained by disputes over who can appoint bishops in the country.

However, recent reports have indicated that China and the Vatican are close to a historic agreement governing the selection of bishops for the country’s 10 million Chinese Roman Catholics.

There are currently about 100 Catholic bishops in China, with some approved by Beijing, some approved by the Vatican and, informally, many now approved by both.

Vatican defends itself
The Vatican has defended itself after a senior cardinal accused it of “selling out” to Beijing.

Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong had criticised the Vatican for its attempts at diplomacy with China’s government.

He accused the Church of forcing bishops to retire in favour of replacements picked by Beijing.

The Vatican did not directly mention Cardinal Zen but said criticism of its China policy was “fostering confusion and controversy”.

Cardinal Zen had in a Facebook post on Monday revealed that a Vatican delegation had asked a bishop to give up his post to make room for a replacement backed by Beijing.

Cardinal Zen, whose term as bishop of Hong Kong came to an end in 2009, said he had travelled to the Vatican earlier this month and personally raised the issue with Pope Francis.

“Do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China?” he wrote on Facebook. “Yes definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.”

In its response, the Vatican said the Pope was in “constant contact with his collaborators… on Chinese issues”.

“It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy,” the Director of the Holy See Press Office Greg Burke said in a statement.