For a long time, he watched from the relative safety of (then British-ruled) Hong Kong. But now Hong Kong is no longer safe for human rights supporters, not even if they belong to the very highest echelon of the Roman Catholic Church: Cardinal Zen went on trial in Hong Kong on September 26 facing charges of colluding with foreign powers.  

Not even the Soviet Union went so far as to prosecute a cleric of the highest rank, which in itself sends a signal — by prosecuting Zen, the Chinese Communist leadership is unwittingly demonstrating how much it is rattled by democracy activism. 

Together with five far younger democracy supporters, the charges allege a fund started by the defendants to help Hong Kongers arrested during the region’s 2019 pro-democracy protests was not registered.  

This week the world will thus see a frail 90-year-old man, who walks with a cane, facing charges more commonly applied to spies. Zen, a priest since 1961, has experience of life beyond China — like virtually all Roman Catholic priests, he trained in Rome, where he was ordained in 1961. He belongs to the religious order of Salesians of Don Bosco, SDB, which was founded by an Italian priest in the 19th century and devotes itself to helping young people and the homeless. From 1964, after gaining his PhD at the Salesians’ university in Turin, then-Father Zen served as a professor of theology at Catholic seminaries in Hong Kong. In 1996, he was made an assistant bishop of Hong Kong. 

The following year Britain handed its crown colony to China, and with that began Zen’s struggles on behalf of his flock. By the time Zen was made bishop of Hong Kong in 2004, China had slowly begun trying to restrict Hong Kongers’ liberties. Two years later, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI made Zen a cardinal. “For the past decade he has been the spiritual figure behind some of the most important civil rights movements in the region, speaking out for religious freedom, increased independence for Hong Kong, and greater government accountability,” Amherst College said as it gave Zen an honorary award in 2007. 

Now he’s on trial over an administrative matter portrayed by the authorities as an insurrection against the state.  

I have spent years of my life documenting Warsaw Pact regimes’ persecution of Christians. Among examples: the Soviets turned churches into grain storage warehouses and sent upstanding priests to Siberia, while turning more compliant ones into informants.  

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Czechoslovakia removed brave clerics and forced them to serve in menial jobs. Poland, struggling to contain its large and devoted Catholic flock, on occasion went as far as to harm a parish priest, as was the case when in 1984 the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB) secret police assaulted and drowned Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. But the SB would never have dared to harm Cardinal Karol Wojtyła or put him on the dock. (God’s Spies, the story of the Stasi’s phenomenally cunning and successful recruitment of pastors as agents, can be found here.) 

The Chinese authorities’ prosecution of Cardinal Zen demonstrates a staggering indifference to a global religious institution. Beijing, which these days of course also encompasses Hong Kong’s judiciary, clearly feels it can freely pursue a respected priest, a member of Christianity’s highest-ranking body, on trumped-up charges. Perhaps that’s because it can, in fact, do so. Unlike Pope Benedict, who actively supported and indeed promoted Zen, Pope Francis has not responded to the prosecution of his cardinal.  

Though China has been home to Catholics since the 13th century, ever since the Communist takeover in 1949 they’ve been severely persecuted. Today there are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, an estimated half of them underground worshippers who pray in secret and are led by bishops appointed by the Vatican. The other half are members of the CCP’s official Catholic Church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which operates as a part of the Chinese state. The latter is reminiscent of the Deutsche Christen, the Nazi effort to turn Germany’s Lutheran Church into a body of the state led by the Nazi-appointed “Reich bishop” Ludwig Müller.  

In 2018, China and the Vatican signed an agreement that gave the Vatican a say in the appointment of CCPA bishops, while the Vatican agreed to recognize them. Before the agreement was signed, Cardinal Zen, alarmed at the prospect of CCP power over Catholics faithful to the global Catholic Church, traveled to Rome to warn against it. Indeed, today Beijing insists on the right to “recognize” bishops appointed by the Vatican.  

Cardinal Zen grew up the son of underground Catholics in Shanghai; perhaps that’s what makes him so devoted to the rights of those harassed by a powerful state. In a 2018 interview, a British reporter asked Zen how many Catholic priests and bishops were in prison in China. “Not many,” the Cardinal responded. “Maybe two bishops. The authorities don’t want martyrs.” Now he’s in the dock himself.  

By standing up for Cardinal Zen, Pope Francis would risk endangering both the fragile treaty with China and the country’s six million underground Catholics. That’s clearly what has emboldened the communist regime to prosecute the troublesome priest.  

At this stage, even a trial poses a serious risk to his health. But Zen is not afraid. Perhaps that’s what makes him so dangerous to China as it tries to stamp its authority on Hong Kong. “Martyrdom is normal in our Church,” Zen told the congregation at a Mass following his initial court hearing in May. “We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”  

Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi.

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