AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
On May 11, Chinese authorities arrested 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002-2009 and an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of Christians. In targeting Cardinal Zen, the CCP is continuing a long historical pattern of socialist regimes persecuting religious leaders in order to expand political and social control over a population.
In the charges brought against Zen, the CCP accuses him of breaking China’s national security law for associating with the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, an organization which provided bail funds to protestors arrested during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019.
Though the organization is now defunct, Zen could face life in prison if convicted. Cantopop singer and actor Denise Ho, ex-legislator Margaret Ng, and academic Dr Hui Po Keung were also arrested and stand accused of similar charges. Many Catholics in Hong Kong affectionately refer to Zen as “Grandpa Cardinal,” and his arrest is sure to worsen an already tense situation between Beijing and the Vatican, as well as the international community.
Born into a Catholic Shanghai family in 1932, Cardinal Zen left for Hong Kong, then a British colony, in 1948, a year before the communists took over of the mainland. In 1989, Zen and others in Hong Kong watched the student-led pro-democracy protests unfold in China before a brutal military crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square left many dead.
That started Zen on a pattern of activism and speaking out against the Chinese government. Zen has repeatedly urged the Vatican to take a tougher stance toward the CCP, and has raised concerns about the Church’s willingness to compromise its independence in order to appease authoritarian leaders – a criticism that echoes that of other church leaders in the 20th century, namely in Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet rule.
Indeed, Zen’s arrest bears eerie similarity to the targeting of religious figures by Moscow following World War II as Stalin and his successors tried to stamp out the light of Christianity on the continent.
In 1953, for example, the Polish Communist regime, a puppet of Moscow, arrested Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland. As a Church canon law professor, a warrior who fought both the Nazis and the Red Army, and someone who risked his life to save Jews from the Holocaust, Wyszyński was a symbol of invincible and sagacious resistance.
When the Soviets took over following World War II, Moscow issued a decree that allowed it to appoint and dismiss officials in the Catholic Church administration, including parish priests. A Conference of Bishops led by Cardinal Wyszyński protested the decree, saying that “we must not lay God’s matters on Caesar’s altar.” For his transgressions, Wyszyński was imprisoned for three years and watched closely by the communist regime.
In Hungary, Moscow imposed a similarly brutal crackdown on the Catholic Church, nearly destroying it entirely. Soviet authorities secularized Catholic schools, censored the free press, and killed or arrested many priests.
In the face of this oppression, Cardinal József Mindszenty dared to defy the Soviets, urging resistance to the puppet government in Budapest. Like Wyszyński, Mindszenty was uncompromisingly anti-communist, with no illusions about the ulterior motives, designs, and nature of the Marxist adversaries. Especially when dealing with determined communists, a hesitant, irresolute attitude could prove disastrous, he wrote in his memoirs.
In 1948, Mindszenty was arrested, and after being tortured, pled guilty to treason and conspiracy. He was imprisoned for eight years before finally being freed and granted asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.
But while the persecutions of Wyszyński and Mindszenty were met with thundering condemnation by Pope Pius XII, Zen’s arrest has come with hardly a peep from Pope Francis. While the Vatican has said it is “concerned” about the arrest, it has neither said or done anything of real significance for fear of upsetting the Communist Party of China.
As Zen himself has said, compromise with evil will not save the Church in China, but only doom it to a more prolonged suffering and destruction. It has and always will be the faith of religious peoples which allow light to triumph over darkness. Today’s Catholic leaders would do well to remember this truth and forcefully condemn China’s crackdown on religion, lest the Chinese communists succeed in accomplishing what the Soviet Union unsuccessfully sought to do many decades ago.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.