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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

HONG KONG (LifeSiteNews) – Former Bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen appeared in court Tuesday, charged with failing to properly register a fund which offered legal and financial assistance to pro-democracy activists.

90-year-old Zen, now retired, was arrested earlier this month under China’s controversial 2020 national security law alongside five other prominent figures – four of whom acted as trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, and the fifth as its secretary. The Fund is no longer in operation.

At the time, the group was arrested for “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces,” but they are yet to be charged with the apparent offence, which carries a possible life sentence.

READ:  Global week of prayer for the persecuted Church in China begins in wake of Cardinal Zen arrest 

The six detainees, including former opposition legislator and barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and activist and singer Denise Ho Wan-sze, will face trial on September 19 over their alleged failure to register the legal relief fund as a “society” in Hong Kong within the allocated timeframe. The penalty for breaking this security offence is a maximum fine of $10,000 HK ($1,274 US).

Zen and four of the others appeared before West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court Tuesday morning, where they each denied the charges, pleading not guilty.

The fund was initially investigated in September 2021 under the national security law, with the organization ceasing operations shortly thereafter. The draconian law has also been used to arrest outspoken Catholic pro-democracy and human rights advocate Jimmy Lai.

The cardinal’s arrest caused uproar from Catholics across the globe who decried his detention as an affront against the freedoms China had promised the former British colony.

READ: Abp. Viganò: Pope Francis has displayed ‘unequalled duplicity’ in his treatment of Cardinal Zen

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, criticized Hong Kong authorities as having abandoned “freedom and justice” and of turning “one of Asia’s freest and most open cities into a police state.”

Speaking to local media Tuesday, Hong Kong’s Security Minister Chris Tang said that accusations of heavy-handed policing and the erosion of freedom is a “classic smear campaign.”

Defending Zen’s arrest, Tang suggested that since the Vatican “is a place to pursue justice and peace” that if the police “did not act in accordance with the law because of one’s role in the Holy See, then I think it would actually breach the Vatican’s principle of justice.”

So far, the response from the Vatican has been muted, as has that from the Diocese of Hong Kong. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, made efforts to assure the faithful that the controversial Sino-Vatican deal had not been affected by Zen’s arrest as the Holy See announced that it was merely “concerned” about the arrest and that it is “following the evolution of the situation with extreme caution.”

In response to a question on whether the Vatican had yet attempted to secure Zen’s release, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Monday that “respecting and protecting freedom of religious belief is the basic policy of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government towards religion.”

“Hong Kong is a society ruled by law. No organization or individual can override the law and all illegal acts should be punished by law,” the spokesman stated, adding that “China is ready to continue constructive dialogue with the Vatican and implement the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops.”

Zen and the five accused will face trial in court on September 19, which will take place over five days.