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Cardinal Joseph Zen arrives at the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts on May 24, 2022, in Hong KongPhoto by Louise Delmotte/Getty Images

(LifeSiteNews) — Several years ago I had the honor of interviewing Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, for a series I was doing for EWTN.

The soft-spoken cardinal struck me as a meek and humble servant of the Church, the very opposite of the rabble-rousing counter-revolutionary that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always tried to portray him as. Not what generally comes to mind, you might say, when you picture a potential martyr.

But underneath his unprepossessing appearance and unaffected mannerisms is a man who, for many years, has been China’s chief voice for religious freedom in general, and for the Underground Catholic Church in China in particular.

He has been an outspoken supporter of persecuted Catholics in China, and a critic of those clerics in China who in the past had compromised with the CCP and joined the state-run church.

The Beijing regime was particularly angered that Zen has refused to let it expunge the Tiananmen Massacre from the history books. Each year the good cardinal insists on remembering the many thousands of victims of the June 4, 1989 massacre by leading a memorial service in Hong Kong attended by tens of thousands.

In his book, “For the Sake of My People, I Will Not Be Silent,” published in 2018, Zen urged Pope Francis not to sign the Sino-Vatican Agreement. He argued that, “Right now, the whole world sees the state of religious freedom go from bad to worse. Can we hope to gain something from coming to terms with this government? When I say that it is almost like hoping that Saint Joseph can get something out of talking with Herod, I am not joking.”

Following the initial signing of the agreement, Zen even published an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he concluded “If I were a cartoonist I would draw the Holy Father on his knees offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven to President Xi Jinping and saying, ‘Please recognize me as the Pope.’”

The years since the signing of the Agreement have seen the persecution of the Church in China intensify, but Zen’s quiet resistance has not wavered. He continues to support the bishops, priests, and laity on the mainland who struggle to remain loyal to Rome, even as Rome urges them to compromise with the CCP by joining the state-run Patriotic Catholic Association.

For these and other actions, the Chinese Communist Party has all but declared Zen to be a counter-revolutionary. Pope Francis, who does not take slights lightly, is obviously not happy with him either, having refused to see him on the cardinal’s last visit to Rome.

Until the CCP’s recent hostile takeover of Hong Kong, it has been unable to take direct action against Zen. That has now changed.

The prelate was first arrested last May for violating the new, Communist-imposed National Security Law, charged with “collusion with foreign powers,” a vague charge punishable by life imprisonment.

But at the actual trial, which was scheduled to begin a few days ago in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Court but has been postponed because the judge tested positive for COVID, the only charge which was brought was a minor one: Zen and four other defendants are accused of failing to properly register a charity set up to defend pro-democracy demonstrators. The charge of “collusion with foreign powers” is being held in abeyance for now, obviously used to threaten the defendants with life imprisonment if they don’t confess to the lesser crime.

Several years ago, it became obvious to the people of Hong Kong that the CCP was tearing up the Sino-British Agreement, under the terms of which Beijing had supposedly guaranteed that the former British colony would enjoy an independent legislature and judiciary until 2037. The CCP is no respecter of international agreements.

At the time, protesters came out by the hundreds of thousands, but it was no use. The demonstrations were crushed, and its leaders were arrested. In response, Zen and other leading democratic activists set up a charity to help those arrested with their legal fees.

The reason that Zen is being brought now before a Communist-controlled tribunal has little to do with his supposed failure to file the proper paperwork. Rather, it has to do with his stalwart witness for the Catholic faith and freedom of conscience in Hong Kong, and his defense of faithful Catholics in China against a Communist party that mercilessly persecutes them.

There is little chance that Zen will be found innocent. The independent judiciary that the British left in place in 1997 is long gone, replaced by tyrants who serve the CCP rather than the law. The white wigs and the black robes are the same, but the outcomes are predetermined.

You would think that the Vatican would be vigorously defending Zen as he prepares to enter this kangaroo court. Instead, everyone there – up to and including the Pope himself – seems more interested in not offending, if not defending, the Chinese Communist Party.

I was quite astonished to hear the Pope, in a recent interview with Crux, defend China against accusations that it is undemocratic. His exact words were, “Qualifying China as undemocratic, I do not identify with that, because it’s such a complex country.” He went on to repeatedly call for “dialogue” with the CCP.

Now, I would have thought it was obvious to everyone that China is governed by a one-party dictatorship, which reserves all power to itself. Its evil acts are legion. From the forced abortion and sterilization of hundreds of millions of women, to the ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, from draconian anti-COVID lockdowns to the active persecution of Christians and all religions, the CCP has amassed one of the worst human rights records in the history of the world.

One may quibble about whether China is in first, second, or third place on the totalitarian spectrum, but it surely ranks in the top three. There is nothing complex about mass murder.

But the Pope doesn’t stop there. Although he called for “dialogue” with the CCP, he seemed to specifically exclude raising the issue of the arrest and looming trial of his 90 year-old brother bishop. Instead, he rather offhandedly remarked that “Cardinal Zen is going to trial these days, I think. And he says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there.”

Here the Pope is distancing himself from Zen’s opinions about the CCP and about the lack of religious freedom in China. Indeed, by suggesting that the cardinal’s views are based on mere “feelings,” when they are in fact based on a lifetime of experience in dealing with a corrupt, atheistic regime, he seems to be dismissing them.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Holy See, led by the Pope himself, is determined not to let Zen’s trial interfere with the renewal of the Sino-Vatican Agreement, first signed in 2018. Yet the past four years have not seen any notable improvement in the treatment of Catholics in China. The persecution of the Underground Church continues. The dozens of vacant sees that the Vatican hoped to fill with jointly approved bishops remain empty. Indeed, the 2021 guidelines governing the practice of religion in China are more onerous than ever, turning churches into virtual extensions of the CCP. And, of course, the senior Chinese cardinal has been arrested on orders from Beijing.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller is among those who have urged the Pope not to “sacrifice [Cardinal Zen] for reasons of state.”

“The truth in the face of persecution should always be emphasized,” Müller stated.

Is the secret Sino-Vatican Agreement even worth saving? If the fear that it might not be extended enough to turn even the Pope himself into an apologist for the CCP, then probably not. The lack of criticism from the Vatican will undoubtedly embolden CCP leaders, who despise weakness and respect strength. They will be more, rather than less, inclined to persecute Zen and other Catholics throughout China in the future.

Years ago, Zen indicated to me that he was ready to die for the faith. That prediction may turn out to be prophetic.

Whatever happens, even if he is abandoned by the Vatican and imprisoned for the faith, I am sure that Zen will be at peace.

After all, he has lived the motto on his coat of arms his entire priestly career: “Ipsi cura est,” it reads, “In His Care.”

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Steven Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and an internationally recognised authority on China and population issues. He was the first American social scientist allowed to do fieldwork in Communist China (1979-80), where he witnessed women being forcibly aborted and sterilized under the new “one-child-policy”.   Mosher’s groundbreaking reports on these barbaric practices led to his termination from Stanford University.  A pro-choice atheist at the time, the soul-searching that followed this experience led him to reconsider his convictions and become a practicing, pro-life Roman Catholic.

Mosher has testified two dozen times before the US Congress as an expert in world population, China and human rights. He is a frequent guest on Fox News, NewsMax and other television shows, well as being a regular guest on talk radio shows across the nation.

He is the author of a dozen books on China, including the best-selling A Mother’s Ordeal: One woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child-Policy. His latest books are Bully of Asia (2022) about the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses to the U.S. and the world, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Pandemics. (2022).

Articles by Steve have also appeared in The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, The New Republic, The Washington Post, National Review, Reason, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Freedom Review, Linacre Quarterly, Catholic World Report, Human Life Review, First Things, and numerous other publications.

Steven Mosher lives in Florida with his wife, Vera, and a constant steam of children and grandchildren.