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Cardinal Joseph Zen, a 90-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong and a vocal critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, was put on trial on Monday for his role in a relief fund for the city. pro-democracy protests in 2019.
The high-profile case has reignited attention on the warming ties between Beijing and the Vatican, which has seen the latter appear to steer clear of remarks that could risk upsetting China.
Zen, one of the highest Catholic clerics in Asia, was arrested by the Hong Kong National Security Police in May along with three other prominent Democratic activists, including Cantopop star Denis Ho.
The fund’s four administrators were first arrested on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces”, a charge under a sweeping national security law that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
A fifth trustee, former lawmaker Cyd Ho, was already in jail for unlawful assembly in a separate case. Ho was also arrested the next day on national security grounds.
All five have since been charged with a lesser offense for failing to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, established in June 2019 to help pay the legal and medical costs of arrested protesters. The fund ceased operations last year following an investigation by the National Security Police.
The charge under the Companies Ordinance, a century-old colonial-era law, carries a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274), but not a prison sentence. All defendants have pleaded not guilty.
On Monday morning, Zen arrived at court in West Kowloon leaning on a cane. He did not speak to reporters.
The court heard the legal fund raised 270 million Hong Kong dollars ($34.4 million) in donations and made more than 100,000 deposits. In addition to providing financial assistance to protesters, the fund has also been used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies such as payment for audio equipment.
The Vatican has remained largely silent on Zen’s case, except for a statement in May, which said it had learned of Zen’s arrest with “concern” and was “monitoring developments in the situation.” situation with extreme attention”.
On September 14, on a flight back from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis was asked if he considered the impending trial against Zen a violation of religious freedom.
In a convoluted response, the pope repeatedly stressed his support for “the way of dialogue” and the importance of respecting “the Chinese mentality.” He also refused to call China undemocratic “because it is such a complex country”, according to the Vatican News.
“Yes, it’s true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, it’s true,” the pope said. “Cardinal Zen is going to be tried these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see there are limits there.
Zen’s trial comes at a sensitive time for the Vatican, which is set to renew a controversial agreement with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China. As part of the initial agreement reached in 2018, the Vatican recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government. The deal came at a time when China was doubling down on its crackdown on underground Christian groups as part of leader Xi Jinping’s campaign to bring religion under the Communist Party’s absolute control.
Zen has openly criticized the agreement, calling it an “incredible betrayal” and accusing the Vatican of “giving the herd into the mouth of the wolves”.
In 2020, the Vatican said the deal was extended for two years.
Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zen fled to Kong Kong with his family to escape the impending communist regime as a teenager. It was ordained a priest in 1961 and appointed Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, before retiring in 2009.
Known as the “conscience of Hong Kong” among his followers, Zen has long been a prominent advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He has been on the front lines of some of the city’s most prominent protests, from the mass rally against national security legislation in 2003 to the “Umbrella Movement” demanding universal suffrage in 2014.
Zen’s lawsuit is the latest in an ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has seen the Asian financial hub rocked by street protests for much of 2019 in resistance to the tightening grip. from Beijing.
Beijing responded by imposing a controversial national security law in 2020, which critics say has been used to crush the city’s opposition movement, overhaul its electoral system, silence its outspoken media and cripple its once vibrant civil society. Most of Hong Kong’s prominent pro-democracy figures have been thrown into jail or exile.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied that the national security law suppresses freedoms. Instead, he insists that the law ended the chaos and restored stability to the city.