Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, many Catholics were arrested for refusing to comply with government campaigns to eliminate foreign influence and nationalize private schools. China severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951.
Zen was ordained a Salesian priest in 1961 and later served as the Salesian provincial superior for China, teaching philosophy and theology in seminaries in the country from 1989 to 1996.
John Paul II named him a coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, a year before the British handover of the Hong Kong colony to China. Zen became the bishop of the diocese in 2002, a post he held until his retirement in 2009.
As bishop emeritus, Zen has been an outspoken voice as both a strong supporter of democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong and a fierce critic of the Vatican’s provisional agreement with Chinese authorities signed in 2018.
In a blog post in 2018, the Chinese cardinal called the Vatican-China deal an act of “suicide” and a “shameless surrender” to Beijing on the Vatican’s part.
After Beijing imposed its national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, Zen told CNA that the Catholics who had been arrested under the new law’s provisions were “simply putting into practice the social teaching of the Church.”
“In this moment, democracy means freedom and human rights, human dignity,” Zen said.
The cardinal was released on bail on May 11, hours after the news broke that he had been arrested.
Eric Yan-ho Lai, a Catholic researcher from Hong Kong who is currently a fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, wrote on social media that the arrest of Cardinal Zen was reminiscent of the persecution of Catholic clerics after the Chinese Communist Revolution.
He said that Zen’s arrest “echoed the arrest of Cardinal Kung Pin-mei, who was jailed by the Communist Party as he refused to surrender to the state controlling the Church in the 1950s.”
At the time, Pope Pius XII highlighted the suffering of Catholics in China in his encyclical Evangelii praecones in 1951.
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The pope wrote: “We have learned that many of the faithful and also nuns, missionaries, native priests, and even bishops have been driven from their homes, despoiled of their possessions and languish in want as exiles or have been arrested, thrown into prison or into concentration camps, or sometimes cruelly done to death, because they were devoutly attached to their faith.”
“Our heart is overwhelmed with grief when We think of the hardships, suffering, and death of these our beloved children.”
In Hong Kong, a person praying at a church at the time of Zen’s arrest told AFP that Catholics fear that religious freedom could be suppressed in Hong Kong in the future.
AFP quoted the Hong Kong-based Italian missionary Franco Mella as saying: “The arrest of Cardinal Zen is a blow for the entire church in Hong Kong, China, and the world.”