Even before the arrest this week of its former top cleric, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong worried about the effects of the sweeping national security law on Chinese territory.
Local Catholic leaders recently decided to cancel annual commemorations of the bloody crushing of Chinese protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 for fear of breaking a law imposed by Beijing two years ago, according to church insiders. .
The cancellation of this year’s memorial Masses on June 4 underscores the chilling effect that the escalating political repression in Hong Kong has already had even within religious communities.
But Wednesday’s arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen sent fresh shockwaves through the city just days after extremist and former security chief John Lee, himself a Catholic, was confirmed as its next leader.
It is also likely to fuel divisions within the Catholic Church over how to respond to growing political repression in Hong Kong.
Police have charged Zen with collusion with foreign forces, an offense under the 2020 security law. The 90-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong is a staunch human rights activist and has was arrested along with four other trustees of a fund set up to help pay the legal and medical costs of participants in citywide pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Priests and senior lay people from the church in Hong Kong said the targeting of the cardinal, who was released on bail on Wednesday evening, had deeply saddened Catholics in the city.
“When he was arrested, I was really shocked . . . I think there will be more suppression of the church in Hong Kong in the future,” said one, who, like other church insiders, declined to be identified for fear of repercussions from city officials.
The Hong Kong Church has commemorated for more than two decades the crushing by Chinese troops of student protests centered in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. But last year, Hong Kong police officers were seen outside the gates of the church holding video cameras.
“It is not a safe time for us to hold Mass in public,” said a person involved in the cancellation of this year’s commemorations. “We have security concerns, as the political situation is becoming tense.”
A priest said that this year “we will not mention June 4th. But it will be in our hearts.”
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, is Catholic, and her successor Lee said last week he still believed in the teachings he received as a child at a Jesuit school in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
But when asked by the Financial Times about Zen’s arrest, which has been condemned by human rights groups and governments including in the US, Canada and the UK, Lee made it clear that Catholic credentials would not protect those accused of violating the Security Act. “Action will be taken accordingly, regardless of the person’s background,” Lee said.
It was Lee who oversaw the introduction of the law in a previous role as security secretary. The Beijing-backed former policeman was officially confirmed as Hong Kong’s next leader on Sunday and will be sworn in on July 1.
“[Zen’s arrest] also sent a warning that even religious leaders. . . cannot be exempt from punishment under the law simply because of their status,” said Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese Association for Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a Beijing-based think tank.
The church in Hong Kong said it was “extremely concerned”. “We urge the Hong Kong police and judicial authorities to handle Cardinal Zen’s case in accordance with justice,” the city’s diocese said. “We have always respected the rule of law. We hope that in the future we will continue to enjoy religious freedom in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s current bishop, Stephen Chow, who was appointed last year, has taken no public position on the security law.
However, the Cardinal’s arrest is likely to widen divisions within the Hong Kong church between pro-democracy activists such as Zen and others who supported the government or believed the church should not be involved in politics.
Pro-democracy activists have accused the church of siding with the latter camp, with many citing a diplomatic deal in 2018 in which the Vatican agreed Beijing should have a say in the appointment of bishops in China.
In the latest incident, a diocesan administrator tendered his resignation following a post on the “Catholic Way” Facebook page on April 27. The post, which was quickly deleted, summarized a TV interview in which a local priest accused China of trying to control religion. in Hong Kong. The diocese said the administrator resigned of his own accord.
The police investigation into the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, of which Zen was a director and which supported pro-democracy protesters, could also have implications for Hong Kong’s justice system.
Police said on Thursday they had complained to the Law Society and Law Society about alleged misconduct by unnamed lawyers who took on the fund’s cases.
“The criminal investigation also revealed that a number of lawyers and lawyers were suspected of professional misconduct when providing legal services,” police said.
“It’s obvious [the authorities] started targeting lawyers who support political prisoners in Hong Kong,” said Eric Yan-ho Lai of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “Legal representatives should not be intimidated for who they represent.”
A Hong Kong priest said no area of city life would escape tighter political controls.
“If you ask if [local] the priests are now more concerned about the security law. . . I would tell you that everyone in Hong Kong is concerned about the law,” he said.