Why Religious Freedom in China Should Concern Americans

The persecution of Cardinal Zen is particularly alarming, and how many other religious persecutions will follow?

Newsroom (10/09/2022 12:15 PM Gaudium Press) “Martyrdom is normal in our church,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. “We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”

The cardinal preached those valiant words in a packed Hong Kong church on the day he had made a court appearance. Accused of violating Hong Kong’s new “security” law and of colluding with “foreign powers,” Cardinal Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, pled not guilty after a May 11 arrest and detainment.

The cardinal’s arrest, alongside fellow pro-democracy advocates, attracted international attention. In the United States, calls for the cardinal’s release and an end to this kind of political intimidation in Hong Kong resounded.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We call on PRC and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates and to immediately release those who have been unjustly detained and charged, like the Cardinal Joseph Zen … and others arrested.”

Similarly, former Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski said: “The Chinese Communist Party apparently fears 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Zen so much that they arrest him for his pro-democracy work. It’s appalling that China has taken over democratic Hong Kong while the world watches, mostly in silence.”

Many Western leaders fear the freedoms (including freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion) guaranteed to Hong Kong in 1997 when the city was returned to Chinese control are being quietly eroded, even erased.

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Now the cardinal faces a five-day trial set to begin Sept. 19. The charges levelled against him are based on his support for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided financial resources for pro-democracy activists to pay legal fees, including bail. The fund was disbanded in October 2021.

Under the new so-called national security law (officially the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in the summer of 2020, China has a widespread ability to arrest voices of political dissent. Further, the new law allows those in custody extradited to mainland China. Sentences range from three years in prison to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Since the imposition of the law, more than 153 people have been arrested. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared: “Zen’s arrest is one of the clearest signs yet of Beijing’s worsening crackdown as Hong Kong fights for its freedoms — and of Beijing’s growing desperation and fear that it is losing this fight.”

Since February, Catholic media have warned of a loss of religious liberty in Hong Kong. The persecution of Cardinal Zen is particularly alarming: If someone of his stature can be arrested, how many other religious persecutions will follow?

Frank Wolf, a former Virginia congressman and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, fears Cardinal Zen’s life. “I have been inside a Chinese prison, and it is grim to say the least,” he wrote in an essay for Fox News. “The imprisonment of 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen would be a death sentence.”

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Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Zen, media mogul Jimmy Lai (who was baptized by Cardinal Zen in 1997) and lawyer Martin Lee (“godfather” of Hong Kong’s democratic movement) have all been outspoken advocates of democracy in Hong Kong, and all have been arrested for their efforts.

The words of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dignitatis Humanae” echo resoundingly: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.”

The document continues: “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.”

Wary of the infringement of the rights of our brother in faith, American Catholics should watch with attention the cardinal’s upcoming trial. We must speak out on his behalf, not only for the ageing prelate’s own protection but because a defence of Cardinal Zen is a defence of religious liberty in Hong Kong and for Chinese Catholics.

In 2011, Cardinal Zen undertook — at the age of 79 — a three-day hunger strike to protest the infringement of the rights of Hong Kong’s Catholic schools.

At that time, the cardinal declared: “God is the Lord of history. We throw all our worries on him. He takes care of us.” May it be so. Let us pray for and live in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters in Hong Kong and around the world.

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– Raju Hasmukh (with files from UCAN News)


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