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Covid delays Cardinal Zen’s Hong Kong trial

According to sources close to the case, Cardinal Zen's trial has been delayed after a positive Covid-19 test for a judge.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. Rock Li via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The criminal trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was delayed in Hong Kong Monday, after a judge in the case tested positive for coronavirus, sources close to the case told The Pillar.

The 90-year-old cardinal was due to appear in court in Hong Kong on Monday, to begin four days of hearings in his trial on charges to his role as a trustee of a local humanitarian fund. But the Sept. 19 hearing did not take place as planned.

There has been no official explanation for the delay.

But according to sources close to the case in Hong Kong, Principal Magistrate Ada Yim has tested positive for coronavirus, resulting in the postponement of the trial.

Sources told The Pillar the trial is now tentatively scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Sept. 21, but official confirmation is not expected until late Tuesday.

While case numbers have remained relatively low and social distancing restrictions have been gradually lifted in Hong Kong over the last four months, the region continues to enforce rigorous testing and quarantine requirements on inbound travelers.

The cardinal is set to stand trial along with three other trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which provided financial and legal aid to Hong Kongers arrested during the 2019 demonstrations against a bill to allow political detainees in Hong Kong to be sent to the mainland for trial.

Although Zen was first arrested in May on national security grounds, including alleged collusion with foreign agents, he is due in court this week to face charges only that as a trustee, he failed to properly register the 612 fund.

It remains unclear whether Chinese authorities will formally charge Zen with the national security crimes for which he was arrested, leading some Hong Kong and Vatican commentators to voice concerns that Zen has effectively become a hostage in Holy See-China negotiations.

Zen served as Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 until 2009. During his time as diocesan bishop and in retirement, the cardinal has been an outspoken advocate for religious freedom, civil liberties, and democracy in the Chinese Special Administrative Region.

Hong Kong, a former British colony with a population of 7.5 million people, became a special administrative region of China in 1997. The Chinese government promised to maintain the city’s existing governmental and economic structures for 50 years after British rule under the “one country, two systems” principle, and to abide by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which guaranteed certain basic civil liberties.

In 2019, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed political arrestees in Hong Kong to be deported to the mainland to face trial. In response, the city saw months of mass demonstrations and protests, leading to a dramatic police crackdown on free assembly and free speech.

While the extradition bill was eventually withdrawn, in June 2020, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, under the terms of which basic civil liberties were curtailed and free speech criminalized.

Zen is the latest in a series of prominent Catholics to be arrested in Hong Kong, including the jailed newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, and Agnes Chow, the Catholic pro-democracy activist who was released from jail in June last year after serving a six-month prison sentence for attending an “unlawful” assembly in 2019.

In addition to speaking out in favor of democratic rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen has also been a forthright critic of the Holy See’s controversial agreement with the mainland Beijing government, which grants the Chinese Communist Party a joint role in the appointment of bishops to mainland dioceses.

The deal, first agreed in 2018 and renewed in 2020, has been the subject of Vatican-China negotiations in recent months, and a further two-year extension is expected to be announced shortly after the conclusion of Zen’s trial.

In recent years, Zen has been an outspoken critic of the Vatican-China deal, saying the Church was making a"choice between helping the Government to destroy the Church or resisting the Government to keep our Faith."

Although the cardinal has received support from Western human rights organizations and lawmakers, who denounced his arrest, Vatican response has been more muted. On the day of his arrest, the Holy See only expressed “concern” at the development and said it was “following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”

Pope Francis spoke about Zen’s upcoming trial on Sept. 15, during his in-flight press conference after a three-day trip to Kazakhstan.

“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,” Francis said.

“Qualifying China as undemocratic, I do not identify with that, because it's such a complex country ... yes, it is true that there are things that seem undemocratic to us, that is true,” said the pope. “To understand China takes a century, and we do not live for a century. The Chinese mentality is a rich mentality, and when it gets a little sick, it loses its richness; it is capable of making mistakes. In order to understand, we have chosen the path of dialogue, open to dialogue.”

In October 2020, Zen was unable to secure an audience with the pontiff, after the cardinal traveled to Rome to urge Francis to appoint a new bishop of Hong Kong “who is trusted by the people,” after the death of Bishop Michael Ming-cheung Yeung in January 2019.

In May 2021, the pope named the Jesuit Fr. Stephen Chow Sau-yan to lead Hong Kong Kong diocese. In his first press conference following his nomination, Chow said there is a need to preserve religious liberty in Hong Kong without striking a confrontational pose against the local government.

Chow had an audience with Pope Francis in March 2022, during which the pope recorded a brief message for Catholics in Hong Kong.

“I wish you to be good citizens and that you are courageous in the face of the challenges of the time,” the pope said.

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