Political activist Alex Chow has not forgotten the kindness of Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, who visited him while he was behind bars five years ago.
Cardinal Zen has long been known for his work as a prison chaplain. On the day Chow met him at the Pik Uk Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in the New Territories of Hong Kong, the elderly priest took a public minibus to the prison, about 40 minutes by car to the hills from the crowded city.
The two talked for 45 minutes, “probably an hour,” with the warden giving up his chair so Zen, then in his 80s, could sit down. For Chow, jailed for his role in the 2014 Occupy Hong Kong protests peacefully, the cardinal was a source of comfort and reassurance and a much-needed connection to the outside world. outside.
“It meant a lot to me,” Chow, who was later released on bail before an appeal he ultimately won, told Al Jazeera. “I could see his genuine concern for others and his resolute opposition to injustice. I feel like I’m really praying for him and being one of the people he cares about.”
The 90-year-old former leader of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong now faces a separate trial.
On Monday, he will face five others, including Renowned Cantopop singer and LGBTQ activist Denise Hoand attorney Margaret Ng about a now-defunct fund they set up to help pay legal fees for people facing trial related to the 2019 protests.
Released on bail, they were charged on May 24 for failing to register funds.
All have pleaded not guilty and, in the five days allotted for proceedings, their defense is expected to argue that the group has a right to association under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the minor constitution. has existed since the British handed over the territory. to China in 1997.
Beijing imposed the security law in June 2020.
“The Chinese government wants to sever all forms of organization and solidarity outside the control of the Communist Party in Hong Kong,” said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defenders. , said in an email answering questions. “The fact that Cardinal Zen is compassionate, caring and respected in Hong Kong really makes him a threat to the authorities.”
Zen was ordained in 1996 and ordained Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, becoming the leader of Catholics in the territory, which now number more than 400,000. In 2006, during a ceremony in Rome, he was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict.
Throughout his career, Zen has demonstrated support for democratic reform and giving Hong Kong people more say in their government. He organized a “walking contest” for universal suffrage, in remembrance 1989 repression in Tiananmen Square and visit the Occupy Hong Kong page to give moral support to the thousands who gathered there.
After retiring in 2009, Zen became more critical of Beijing, which severed ties with the Vatican in 1951 and founded the Communist Party-led Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He was particularly critical of a 2018 deal under which Pope Francis recognizes seven bishops appointed by Beijingwhich is supposed to bring together mainland Catholics, believed to be around 12 million.
Andreas Fulda, author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera in emailed comments: “Cardinal Zen has made the ultimate self-sacrifice. “Deep down, he must know that the dictatorship in Beijing will never waver. Undeterred, he supported Christians in mainland China. Unwaveringly committed to the principle of nonviolence, he is part of an influential ecumenical coalition of faith leaders advocating liberal democracy in Hong Kong. “
The Catholic Church has been criticized for not taking a firmer stance towards Zen’s arrest and trial.
After he was arraigned on May 24, pictured entering court leaning on a cane, the church issued a brief statement noting that he pleaded not guilty and that they would “supervise closely” events.
“Cardinal Zen is always in our prayers and we invite everyone to pray for the Church,” it concluded.
Asked on Thursday about religious freedom in China and Zen’s flawed trial, the pope said that while it is “not easy to understand the Chinese mentality,” it must be “respected.” important,” according to a report in Catholic News.
About Zen, he said: “He says what he feels and we see that there are limitations [in Hong Kong]”.
The Pope, who said as he flew home from Congress of Leaders of Traditional and World Religions in Kazakhstanadded that he prefers to “choose the path of dialogue”.
Reports said that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was also present at the meeting, declined an invitation to hold talks with the Pope because his schedule was full.
‘The goal of life’
Zen’s trial is the latest in connection with the 2019 protests, which began with large marches against proposed bill to allow extradition to the mainland and, amid the government’s perceived lack of action and heavy-handed police tactics, have sometimes evolved into violent demands for more democracy in the Chinese-ruled territory.
The group established the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in July 2019, naming it after the first serious confrontation between protesters and police last month outside the Council’s fenced building. Legislature, where politicians debate controversial bills. Police used rubber bullets and tear gas against the protesters, and dozens of people were arrested.
They recovered the fund last October after police announced it was under investigation.
The closure of the fund, and the trial of its founders, will also have consequences for thousands of times face charges from the 2019 protests that legal costs can run into hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars.
CHRD’s Nee said the lack of funding options could undermine those defendants’ right to a fair trial.
“It was possible to mobilize some of these costs in the past, but by reducing the ability to do so, Beijing will make it much more difficult for the people to obtain the legal resources to build,” he noted. Build a solid defense system.
Zen has been released on bail pending trial.
During his first public appearance after his arrest, he told the Salesian Vocational Office (Chinese province) about his life motivation and the reason he entered the priesthood.
He notes that the world is “chaotic” and that some are motivated by the need to pursue “money, wealth and power” but he believes life means learning how to be a person of integrity, overflowing with integrity. full of sense of justice and kindness.
“This is the purpose of life,” said the retired bishop.
Despite his long support for democratic reform, Zen has largely avoided any backlash from the authorities.
Following the bishop’s arrest, newly-appointed Hong Kong leader John Lee, a former police officer and security chief, said the arrest had nothing to do with Zen’s background or creed, but the lawbreakers. The law should be held accountable.
For Chow, who now lives in the United States, the decision to arrest and prosecute a man many in Hong Kong consider the territory’s “moral conscience” is further evidence of the extent of change. of the territory.
“He’s being prosecuted talking,” he said. “It really shows how the Hong Kong government has changed its mentality [and] future trajectory of how it might approach freedom of religion or political speech; whether Hong Kong is still a free society or is that long gone. “