By Shirley Lau
Hong Kong Sep 26 (EFE).- Hong Kong’s 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of both Beijing and Vatican, went on trial alongside five pro-democracy activists Monday over their involvement in a fund that helped protesters in the city’s anti-government movement in 2019.
Zen, one of Asia’s highest-ranking Catholic clerics, and his co-defendants were arrested by police under a harsh national security law in May for alleged foreign collusion through the now-defunct “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” of which Zen was a trustee.
The arrest of the nonagenarian, one of the only two living cardinals in China and a member of the Vatican’s advisory committee for China, shocked the Catholic world and prompted renewed attention to the Holy See’s controversial attempt to rebuild ties with Beijing in recent years.
Police have not charged Zen or the other arrestees, including barrister Margaret Ng and pop singer Denise Ho, under the Beijing-imposed national security law, which can carry a maximum term of life in prison.
Instead, they are charged with the less serious offense of failing to properly register the fund, established in June 2019 to provide legal and humanitarian aid to protesters arrested or injured in anti-government protests that began on Jun. 12 that year. The group ceased operations in late October 2021.
All defendants have pleaded not guilty. The conviction carries a maximum punishment of a fine of HKD 10,000 (about $ 1,270.)
Zen walked Monday into the city’s West Kowloon court with representatives of the Canadian, UK and German consulates in Hong Kong.
Zen’s defense lawyer Robert Pang asked Magistrate Ada Yim to allow Zen to be able to leave the courtroom for a rest if needed due to his health condition. The magistrate approved the request.
The prosecution told the court that the fund, which failed to be registered between Jul. 16, 2019 and Oct. 31, 2021, received HKD 270 million (about $ 34 million) from 103,000 transactions from the public and part of the money was used for political activities. The trial will continue Tuesday.
The high-profile case comes at a sensitive time for the Vatican as it is expected to review a secretive deal with Beijing in October over the appointment of bishops in China. Under the original deal struck in 2018, the Vatican agreed to recognize the legitimacy of seven bishops appointed by Beijing.
In China, 12 million Catholics are divided between those belonging to a state-sanctioned church and an underground one loyal to Rome. Some underground priests claim they have become more marginalized since the 2018 deal.
Zen, billed as a “rebellious bishop” when he headed Hong Kong’s Catholic Church from 2002 and 2009, has been actively campaigning for greater democracy in Hong Kong and religious freedoms in mainland China.
He has been staunchly critical of the Vatican for what he deems a soft approach towards Beijing. The Vatican only responded to his arrest in May by saying “the Holy See has learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention.”
On a return flight to Rome from Kazakhstan on Sep. 14, Pope Francis was asked by a reporter whether Zen’s upcoming trial was a violation of religious freedom. The pope said China was “a complex country” and that Zen “says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there.”
Earlier this month, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller told the Italian press that no senior Vatican official had expressed solidarity or a prayer initiative for Zen at an August gathering of cardinals in Rome.
“We abandoned him,” Mueller said. EFE