Cardinal Joseph Zen has been arrested by the authorities in Hong Kong, according to local media reports.
He was reportedly released on bail from Chai Wan Police Station on Hong Kong island late on May 11.
The 90-year-old former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong is believed to have been detained in his role as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters to pay their legal fees.
The Standard newspaper reported that the trustees were arrested on Wednesday evening local time, according to sources.
The fund, which was founded in 2019, disbanded last year after the national security police ordered it to share operational details, the newspaper said.
Zen, who stood down as Hong Kong’s Catholic bishop in 2009, is an outspoken supporter of the pro-democracy movement.
In 2020, a sweeping National Security Law came into force, criminalizing previously protected civil liberties under the headings of “sedition“ and “foreign collusion.”
Reuters reported that Zen and four others — Canadian-Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho, academic Hui Po Keung, and former opposition lawmakers Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho — were arrested for alleged “collusion with foreign forces.”
Before the law’s implementation, many Catholics, including Zen, warned that it could be used to silence the Church in Hong Kong.
Zen’s arrest will pose a dilemma for the Vatican, which has shied away from public criticism of the crackdown in Hong Kong.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, said in June 2021 that he was not convinced that speaking out on the situation in Hong Kong would make a difference.
Benedict Rogers, a British human rights activist, deplored the arrests.
Rogers, the founder of the NGO Hong Kong Watch and a convert to Catholicism, said: “We condemn the arrests of these activists whose supposed ‘crime’ was funding legal aid for pro-democracy protestors back in 2019.”
“Today’s arrests signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.”
“We urge the international community to shine a light on this brutal crackdown and call for the immediate release of these activists.”
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief, a cross-party group of U.K. parliamentarians, also condemned Zen’s arrest.
“This is yet another example of China’s increasing restrictions of fundamental human rights,” it said in a Twitter post.
Earlier this week, former security chief John Lee was named as Hong Kong’s next chief executive, succeeding Carrie Lam, who held the post since 2017. Both Lee and Lam are baptized Catholics.
Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan, Hong Kong’s new Catholic leader, took charge of his diocese in December 2021.
In his first interview, published in February this year, he underlined the importance of protecting human dignity.
“I find it unacceptable for human dignity to be ignored, trampled upon, or eliminated entirely. God gave us this dignity when he created us in his image and likeness. And therefore it is universal because it comes from the love of God,” Chow said.
In March, Pope Francis recorded a brief video 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,” he said.
In Cardinal Zen’s last blog post before his arrest, he quoted Romans 8:34-39: “It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
“No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life … nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”