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Arrest of Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen sparks concerns over wider net cast against religious institutions

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Hong Kong police has taken into custody Card Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a well-known supporter of the local pro-democracy movement, various local citizen media report.

The decision to arrest Hong Kong’s 90-year-old bishop emeritus is thought to be connected with the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped thousands of pro-democracy protesters involved in the 2019 protests.

At 11 p.m. local time, the 90-year-old cardinal was released on bail: the Hong Kong Free Press online agency released pictures showing him leaving the Chai Wan police station. But release on bail still leaves the case against him open.

Until it was shut down last October, Card Zen was one of its trustees. The authorities arrested him along with others involved with the Fund, most notably barrister Margaret Ng, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, and singer-songwriter Denise Ho. They were also granted bail in the evening.

From what is known so far, the police investigation has focused on the possible “collusion” of the 612 Fund with foreign forces in violation of the draconian law on national security imposed by Beijing in the summer of 2020.

Card Zen has long been in the crosshair of the Chinese government. In January, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press published four articles accusing him of inciting students to rise up against a series of government measures in 2019.

The cardinal is also disliked by Beijing for his criticism of the control the Communist Party of China exerts over religious communities.

He slammed the removal of external crosses from churches in mainland China and for years celebrated Masses in remembrance of the young martyrs of Tiananmen Square slaughtered by the authorities in Beijing on 4 June 1989 for demanding freedom and democracy.

The cardinal has also opposed the agreement between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops.

A steadfast defender of civil rights in Hong Kong and mainland China, Card Zen has often attended the trials of people arrested on political charges as well as pro-democracy activists jailed for violating the national security legislation.

Meanwhile, answering questions from reporters, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, said: “It is with concern that the Holy See has learnt the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is carefully following the evolution of the situation.”

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