China arrests Cardinal Zen and religious freedom now faces a grim future in Hong Kong

Cardinal Zen's arrest signals that religious freedom in Hong Kong in danger from China

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I have been inside a Chinese prison, and it is grim to say the least. The imprisonment of 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen would be a death sentence. 

In May 2022, Hong Kong authorities arrested Cardinal Zen on spurious charges, accusing him and four others of violating China’s national security by "colluding with foreign forces." Despite being released on bail, his situation remains precarious. 

Cardinal Zen’s arrest has sparked an international outcry and represents a new low for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. As a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and a longtime friend to the cardinal, whom I and many others admire, I am deeply concerned about his safety and well-being. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, 2018. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong, 2018. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Hong Kong was once a free and prosperous international financial center where a "high degree of autonomy" and civil liberties were guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration – a treaty signed between the United Kingdom and China in 1984 – and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. 

ARRESTED CARDINAL REPEATEDLY WARNED HOLY SEE OF CHINESE PERSECUTION, CONDEMNED VATICAN'S SECRETARY OF STATE

Today, the Chinese government has broken its promises and is eviscerating the rule of law and civil liberties in Hong Kong. Religious freedom as a fundamental right will inevitably suffer as well. In fact, we are witnessing before our eyes this free city devolving into an increasingly repressive society where no one resisting government tyranny is safe, including religious leaders and communities.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia's highest-ranking Catholic clerics, attends Mass at the Holy Cross Church in Hong Kong on May 24, 2022.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia's highest-ranking Catholic clerics, attends Mass at the Holy Cross Church in Hong Kong on May 24, 2022. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

For example, in December 2020, Hong Kong authorities targeted the Good Neighbor North District Church and its pastor Roy Chan, in apparent political retribution against their democracy and social activism. The high-profile arrest of a prominent Hong Kong religious figure such as Cardinal Zen signals a turn for the worse and causes alarm about the future of religious freedom in Hong Kong.

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The use of broad and vague provisions of Hong Hong’s national security law against Cardinal Zen is particularly troubling. Authorities could use the law to arbitrarily persecute many more religious individuals and organizations who participated in democracy protests in Hong Kong. Religious people in Hong Kong will be forced to submit to the will of the government in violation of their conscience or belief, or else face dire consequences for refusing to do so. 

Cardinal Zen is not only a democracy activist in Hong Kong, but he has also been a tireless and outspoken advocate for religious freedom and human rights in China. He is a hero and role model for many. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen with Buddhist Master Sik Kok Kwong at a Chinese New Year gathering on March 12, 2007. (K.Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Cardinal Joseph Zen with Buddhist Master Sik Kok Kwong at a Chinese New Year gathering on March 12, 2007. (K.Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

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When I served as a member of the U.S. Congress, I met with Cardinal Zen several times and personally witnessed his commitment to religious freedom first-hand. As he faces great adversity now, it is imperative that we speak out on his behalf, not only to ensure the charges against him are dropped, but in support of religious freedom for all in Hong Kong and China. 

I urge the U.S. government to stand up for religious freedom and ensure Cardinal Zen will not be forgotten.

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