Cardinal Zen charged with improperly registering fund, pleads not guilty in Hong Kong court

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, celebrates Mass in Hong Kong May 24, 2022. May 24 is marked worldwide as the day for prayer for the church in China. (CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters)

HONG KONG (CNS) – Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and several others pleaded not guilty in a Hong Kong court to charges of failing to properly register a now-defunct fund to help anti-government protesters.

The 90-year-old cardinal was detained on May 11 under China’s national security law for “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces”, but he has not been charged with that. Instead, he and the four others were charged with failing to properly register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, set up to offer financial assistance to those involved in anti-government protests in 2019. It was disbanded last year after coming under scrutiny by authorities.

The May 24 court hearing coincided with the feasts of Our Lady of Sheshan and Mary Help of Christians, a date marked by Catholics to pray for the church in China. Later that evening, Cardinal Zen celebrated Mass for the feast.

All five defendants pleaded not guilty. If convicted of the improper registration, each defendant could incur a fine of about US$1300. Their trial will begin on September 19.

The defendants’ arrests on May 10 and 11 under the security law provoked an international outcry. The law made participating in or supporting the pro-democracy movement crimes of subversion and collusion with foreign organisations, and allowed for those remanded to be extradited to mainland China. Punishment ranges between a minimum of three years and a maximum of life imprisonment.

But Chris Tang, Hong Kong security minister, told local media the international criticism was a “classic smearing campaign”.

In a statement on May 12, the Diocese of Hong Kong urged “the Hong Kong Police and the judicial authorities to handle Cardinal Zen’s case in accordance with justice, taking into consideration our concrete human situation”. It said it was “extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen, and we are offering our special prayers for him.”

Also in China, a Vatican-approved Chinese bishop remains in detention more than one year after his arrest for allegedly violating the communist country’s repressive regulations on religious affairs.

Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang was arrested on May 21, 2021, reported A day earlier, police arrested 10 priests and an unknown number of seminarians from a Catholic seminary in the diocese that was set up in an abandoned factory building.

About a year ago, authorities in Xinxiang shut down Catholic schools and kindergartens in line with a government ban on education by religious groups.

All those arrested were accused of violating China’s regulations on religious affairs and subjected to “political lessons” in detention, said media reports. The priests and seminarians were released after brief detention but remain under surveillance, while the seminary is still closed.

Bishop Zhang, 63, remains detained and his whereabouts are unknown, reported.

It said Bitter Winter, a magazine covering religious liberty and human rights, reported that Bishop Zhang has been targeted and oppressed by officials of the Chinese Community Party for not bowing to pressure to join the government-controlled Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China and Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

The bishop is reportedly among “conscientious objectors” who oppose the 2018 secretive Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops, which was renewed in 2020.

Since signing the deal, Chinese authorities have intensified their crackdown on churches whose leaders refuse to join state-run church bodies.

A source told Bitter Winter that the Vatican had asked the Chinese regime to release Bishop Zhang, but the authorities responded by saying the bishop’s crimes were serious, so he must remain in detention.

Since his secret ordination with a Vatican mandate in 1991, Bishop Zhang has been under constant pressure and barred from carrying out his duties as bishop. He was arrested on several occasions but later released.

Catholics in Xinxiang have expressed concerns for the bishop, especially about his health. Shortly before his latest arrest, the bishop had surgery for cancer, reported.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, faced a new clampdown after the Communist Party approved and implemented new regulations on religious affairs in May, 2021. Among other things, the regulations state that Catholic bishops must be approved and ordained by the state-sanctioned bishops’ conference.

The regulations say Christian clergy must support the Communist Party leadership and must regularly apply for recertification to carry out their duties. Clergy are allowed to run religious activities, including seminaries, only in government-registered and controlled institutions.

The arrest of Bishop Zhang and others in Xinxiang triggered condemnation from across the world, with French Catholic bishops and Christian groups like International Christian Concern issuing statements to express their concerns.

Observers noted that the crackdown in Xinxiang signalled a new dimension in religious persecution in China, especially against formerly independent churches.

Photo: Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, celebrates Mass in Hong Kong on May 24, 2022. May 24 is marked worldwide as the day for prayer for the church in China. (CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters)

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