Articles in a Chinese Communist Party-sponsored newspaper have denounced Cardinal Joseph Zen, in what activists say is a sign that freedom of "religion is increasingly in Beijing’s sights."
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Two prominent human rights activists are sounding an alarm about the threat to religious freedom in Hong Kong, where China’s recent tightening of controls represents a sharp turn from its earlier promises of maintaining basic civil rights.
Nina Shea, a former member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, took note that the retired bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen [photo above], was targeted in no less than four articles in an official state newspaper in the former British territory.
“During the final week of January, an ominous series of articles in Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper owned by China’s liaison office, accuse Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and Christian churches there of inciting student riots against repressive measures in 2019,” Shea, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, wrote in an article for the Epoch Times. “Four vitriolic articles, all underscoring the need for greater control, resemble a denunciation campaign of the kind portending a new crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”
Indeed, Cardinal Zen has been outspoken in defense of civil rights in both mainland China and in Hong Kong. He has condemned China’s removal of crosses from the tops of churches and celebrated Mass for the victims of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre.
Churches “incited riots”
One article in Ta Kung Pao, headlined “Cardinal Zen uses his status as a clergyman to disrupt Hong Kong,” also speaks about the Falun Gong movement, which China has severely restricted, and states, “It is difficult for the government to regulate or eliminate these religious groups or individuals, despite the fact that they have committed many crimes.”
“The articles’ complaints against the cardinal also include assertions that many of those arrested in the pro-democracy movement had studied at Christian schools,” Shea writes. “Three subsequent articles reiterate the theme that churches ‘incited riots’ among Hong Kong students and gave sanctuary to pro-democracy demonstrators. They advocate for them to come under government control.”
Shea said that until now, Hong Kong’s churches have been largely left alone by the government. “There have been no government-registered ‘Patriotic’ churches where clerical allegiance to the CCP is required, as on the mainland,” she writes. “Clergy have not been subjected to ‘reeducation’ in communist thought, church crosses remain intact, sermons are not required to be based on Xi [Jinping]’s sayings, surveillance cameras are not trained on congregations, and young people are not banned from religious worship services or Bible studies — all hallmarks of the Sinicization program for China’s mainland churches.”
Shea’s concerns are shared by Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch, who wrote recently that “it seems religion is increasingly in Beijing’s sights.”
“Having driven demonstrators off the streets, locked up the democrats, shut down the independent media, corroded academic freedom, almost eliminated civil society space, neutered trade unionism and castrated the judiciary, religion — and especially the Catholic Church — is the one remaining institution and liberty left standing,” Rogers wrote in an op-ed for UCANews.
He pointed out that the four articles targeting Cardinal Zen do not represent anything new in China’s harassment of the prelate. In 2019, Rogers said, he attended a private gathering of Catholic legislators in Fatima, Portugal. Cardinal Zen and longtime Hong Kong democracy activist Martin Lee, a devout Catholic, were also invited.
“China’s embassy in Lisbon dispatched a delegation of a dozen or so diplomats to occupy the entire first floor of the hotel opposite ours and make multiple attempts to infiltrate our gathering,” Rogers testified. “That the Chinese Communist Party regime was so spooked by these two Hong Kong pro-democracy octogenarians visiting a religious pilgrimage site with a group of Catholic legislators said a lot about Beijing’s paranoia and its fear of religion.”
“But what is new is that pro-Beijing media is now openly talking about restrictions on religion in Hong Kong,” he continued. The articles in Ta Kung Pao quote prominent local civic leaders and pro-Beijing clergymen expressing the need for some sort of government control over local religious organizations to forestall anti-government activity.
“I fear that we are witnessing the early-warning signs of a creeping Chinese Communist Party takeover of control of religion. A subtle absorption of Hong Kong’s religious institutions into the Beijing-controlled, United Front Work Department-directed operations: the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for the Protestants, the Catholic Patriotic Association for the Catholics, and a slow strangulation of religious freedom,” Rogers wrote.
But the new leader of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen’s successor, offers a “fragile flicker of hope,” Rogers said. Bishop Stephen Chow, who was installed December 4, was not Beijing’s choice, he noted. In all his public pronouncements since his appointment was confirmed, the new bishop “has shown that even if he is having to navigate his course carefully, he holds firm to principles of human dignity and freedom of conscience.”
Rogers cautioned that the articles in Ta Kung Pao should not be ignored. “When Beijing wants to signal its intentions, it has a habit of firing a warning shot via its media outlets first,” he said. “Hong Kong’s freedoms have already been defenestrated. But we must not simply take it for granted and accept it as given. If places of worship are reined in, freedom of thought, conscience and religion are curtailed, homilies are censored, clergy are jailed or disappeared or simply silenced, and if Hong Kong’s religious institutions are slowly absorbed into the CCP’s institutions, and if truth — or the pursuit of truth — is then shrouded in lies, we must shout it from the rooftops.”