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Vatican 'should not sacrifice Cardinal Zen for China'

German Cardinal Gerhard Muller criticizes lack of support for Hong Kong prelate during recent consistory
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen here at the Vatican in this Oct 25, 2016 photo

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen here at the Vatican in this Oct 25, 2016 photo. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 05, 2022 04:24 AM GMT

German Cardinal Gerhard Muller has expressed dismay over the Vatican’s silence on China’s abuses and an imminent "unfair" trial against Hong Kong’s outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen during the recent consistory.

Cardinal Muller, 75, a theologian and former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, made the remarks on the apparent lack of support from the Church hierarchy for the 90-year-old former bishop of Hong Kong in an interview with the Italian language newspaper, Il Messengero (The Messenger).

“Cardinal Zen was absent in Rome because he is under house arrest for raising his voice against Beijing, defending human rights both in Hong Kong and China,” said Cardinal Muller, referring to the Aug 29-30 consistory that reflected on the Apostolic Constitution that seeks to reform Roman Curia.

About 200 out of a total of 226 members of the College of Cardinals attended the meeting, dubbed the largest during the pontificate of Pope Francis.

During the consistory, Cardinal Muller said that no senior Vatican official or even the pope mentioned Cardinal Zen or his trial.

 “There will be an unfair trial next month. Nobody has raised the grave question of our brother Zen. Neither Dean [of the College of Cardinals] Cardinal Re [Giovanni Batista Re] nor Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin, even the pope. There was no solidarity document, no prayer initiative for him,” the German cardinal lamented 

"The extraordinary consistory would have been an opportunity to declare full solidarity with Zen"

He said he does not think Cardinal Zen would be abandoned by the Vatican because of his cumbersome character, given that he defends Chinese Catholics belonging to the underground Church not aligned with the Communist Party or anything else.

“I hope he won't be abandoned. The extraordinary consistory would have been an opportunity to declare full solidarity with Zen on the part of all the cardinals of the College,” he said. 

Cardinal Muller said that there are obviously “political reasons” for the Holy See that prevent it from taking any initiative in support of Cardinal Zen.

“I am referring to the agreement over bishop appointments [in China] the Holy See recently signed with the government of Xi Jinping. I am sorry to say this [agreement] does not serve the interests of the Holy See and the Vatican State to the ecclesial dimension and the truth,” he claimed.

China broke diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1949 following the Communist takeover. Since then, the appointment of bishops has been a bone of contention between the Vatican and China as Catholics remained split between the state-run Patriotic Church and the underground Church that pledges allegiance to the pope.

The Vatican signed a two-year provisional agreement with Beijing to bring an end to the stalemate and to end the division of Chinese Catholics. The agreement, whose provisions have not been made public, was renewed for another two years in 2020 and is expected for another renewal in October.

"He is 90 years old, and we left him alone"

Cardinal Zen has been among the staunch critics of the agreement and termed it the Vatican’s betrayal of underground Catholics who endured Communist persecution for their allegiance to the Vatican.

Moreover, he is known as a fierce critic of Beijing’s widespread human rights violations including its crackdown against ethnic and religious minorities and dissent. He faced the Communist ire for his strong support of the pro-democracy movement that engulfed politically troubled Hong Kong in 2019.

He was targeted with anti-state propaganda by pro-Beijing media. In May, Hong Kong’s police arrested Cardinal Zen for his involvement with a now-defunct humanitarian fund that assisted pro-democracy supporters. He was later released on bail amid a global backlash. The trial is set to begin in October.

Cardinal Muller told Il Messengero that the Church should be freer and less bound to worldly logic of power, consequently freer to intervene and, if necessary, to criticize those politicians who end up suppressing human rights. 

“In this case, I wonder why not criticize Beijing. Zen is a symbol [of defiance] and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing. He is authoritative, courageous, and much feared by the [Chinese] government. He is 90 years old, and we left him alone,” he said.

Cardinal Muller said that the Vatican views stakes in China as “a bit high” but perhaps it can better use diplomacy. 

“If necessary, the Church should also criticize the powerful of this world. And then the example of Pius XII should have taught us something, the truth cannot always be sacrificed,” he said, noting that the underground Church is currently facing persecution in many areas of China and faces state-backed bishops who are more obedient to Beijing that to the pope.

“They are being sacrificed on the altar of the reason of state, to defend and carry out the diplomatic agreement with Beijing. I see this risk and feel pain,” he added.

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