PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The U.S. State Department has condemned the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen and others by Hong Kong police on May 11 as the latest example that the city’s authorities “will pursue all means necessary to stifle dissent and undercut protected rights and freedoms.”
Cardinal Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, was detained alongside former opposition lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, singer Denise Ho Wan-Sze, and scholar Hui Po-keung on charges of “collusion with foreign forces” for their involvement in a now-closed fund that supported pro-democracy protesters in 2019.
Reports indicate Cardinal Zen, 90, was eventually released on bail. It’s unclear if the others are still in custody.
“We call for the immediate release of all those who remain in custody and, of course, we continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said May 11.
They were all arrested for breaking Hong Kong’s 2020 security law that classifies participation in or support of the pro-democracy movement as crimes of subversion and collusion with foreign organizations. That delineation allows those charged to be extradited to China to face trial, and the punishment ranges from three years to life in prison.
Nury Turkel, the Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told The Tablet that the commission is “appalled by the Hong Kong government’s use of broad and vague provisions” of the 2020 law to detain Cardinal Zen.
“As many Hong Kong political activists and protest participants, leaders, and groups have religious backgrounds and affiliations, USCIRF is very concerned that the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities could invoke the National Security Law to target more members of religious communities and religious institutions in Hong Kong,” Turkel said in a May 11 statement.
The USCIRF commissioner added that Cardinal Zen’s detention is an “ominous” sign of a further deterioration of human rights, including religious freedom, in Hong Kong.
“The U.S. government and the international community must pay close attention and take appropriate actions to respond to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong that has significant religious freedom implications,” Turkel said.
The fund Cardinal Zen and the others were involved in was the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided legal aid to people who participated in the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Cardinal Zen and the others were trustees of the fund, which closed in 2021.
Cardinal Zen is a longtime public supporter of the pro-democracy and independence protests that have taken place in Hong Kong for the better part of a decade.
The Biden administration also weighed in on the arrests. White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters May 11, that the administration calls for the immediate release of “those who have been unjustly detained and charged, like Cardinal Joseph Zen.” Jean-Pierre added that “freedom of expression is critical to prosperous and secure societies.”