07/11/2014, 00.00
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Card Zen: Religious freedom and civil liberties are united, for China and Hong Kong

by Bernardo Cervellera
A wide ranging conversation with the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong: the courage of Msgr. Ma Daqin, who sent a message to Pope Francis; underground Catholics are also prepared to be arrested; suspicions about Beijing’s sincerity towards possible dialogue with the Holy See. And in Hong Kong, the march for a referendum on democracy; support for "Occupy Central"; the fear of the government and arrests. Card. Zen reaffirms that religious freedom and civil liberties go hand in hand.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - Chatting on the phone with Card. Joseph Zen, 82, is like listening to a dam burst. The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong speaks to me of the courage of Msgr. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has told  Pope Francis not to worry about his fate [Msgr. Ma has been under house arrest for the past two years for having resigned from the Patriotic Association], but to "tell the truth" to the Chinese government; he alludes to the ambiguities and problems of dialogue between China and the Vatican; he stresses the urgent need to sort underground bishops, who are also ready to be imprisoned for religious freedom and defend their bond with the pope.

He then speaks of his 80 km march in the city to push the Hong Kong population to vote in a referendum on democracy; support the "Occupy Central" movement which calls for universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive; the standoff between the youth movement and the government of Hong Kong, controlled by Beijing, which arrests protesters and perhaps even the Cardinal: "If they start to arrest someone - he says - I'm going to hand myself in because I took part, so they will have to start with me".

For Joseph Zen, the commitment to religious freedom in China is one with his commitment to civilian democracy in Hong Kong: "Religious freedom is inseparable from civil liberty. In China there is no religious freedom because there is no freedom at all. Religious freedom in Hong Kong has not yet threatened. But if we lose our civil liberties and if tomorrow we have a government that we do not choose us, we risk losing freedom of religion".

Here are some excerpts of the conversation.

Your Eminence, in recent months there have been rumors about China's desire to resume diplomatic talks with the Holy See. The curious thing is that these rumors spread just as  the Hong Kong Church is giving a strong testimony in favor of democracy. Meanwhile in China, the Church is suffering many new restrictions, even if the number of people fighting for human rights and drawing closer to the Church is growing in society at large.

Writing in the Italian daily "Corriere della Sera", I took the liberty of suggesting to Pope Francis that if Beijing invited him to go to China, the Pope must be careful not to be deceived because for the moment I see no intention of sincere dialogue. They are only concerned with crushing the Church, as is the case in Hong Kong.

There were other times I have written to Rome reminding them of the method used by the Chinese Communists to win the nationalists: dialogue! They pretended to talk, but conversed while they fought and conquered. You really cannot trust them.

I think everyone in China, in the Church, understand me. Many post on my blog that I am right, saying: 'Yes, yes, you're right, the Chinese Communists cannot be trusted. The Pope should be careful".

At present there is a strong control over civil society, journalists, and even the Church in China...

We must remember the martyrs of China. Msgr. Thaddeus Ma Daqin sent me a message to give to Pope Francis, not to be afraid to tell the truth, not to worry

about his situation, Msgr.Ma wrote "Forget about me, worry about the truth". He is a brave man indeed!They are destroying churches in China; smashing crosses; issuing a "Blue Books" in which they state that religion is a threat to socialist society .... This is not a situation that encourages dialogue. We must not delude ourselves. It must be said, however, that the funeral of underground bishop, Joseph Fan Zhongliang, last April, showed some agreement. They allowed the funeral, the gathering of the people, the Mass with priests and underground and official. I think this is due to public safety in Shanghai, which is quite reasonable, rather than indications of the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the Patriotic Association.

My impression is that where there is a large and united clergy, the Church can resist. But you have to encourage them. For this reason, we hope that the Holy See does not delude themselves with the dialogue, but trusts in clarity, truth, encouraging the testimony of the faithful.

For that matter, what should we be afraid of? We fear that breaking off the so-called dialogue, the government will go back to ordaining illicit bishops. So what? Those remain excommunicated and the faithful avoid them! And why are we afraid to ordain underground bishops? Because we fear that by ordaining them they will be sent to prison? But they are not afraid and say so themselves. They are afraid of Rome's silence, because they do not know if they are doing good or bad ... It takes clarity to be faithful to the principles of the Church. God's people in China deserve some clarity.

Of course, every effort should be made to foster opportunities for dialogue, but we need to stand in front of the facts: if there is no proof or sign of sincerity, this sham dialogue and pantomime act must stop. If there is no hope of this dialogue succeeding, we act as soon as possible because our Church is wasting away. We must pray because the situation in China is difficult, complicated and dangerous. At this time I would like to retire, listen to music, read books, and instead I feel the urgency of my commitment to the Chinese Church.

Eminence you are also committed to the battle for democracy in Hong Kong.

The most important point was to support the movement "Occupy Central" movement, who want clarity on the steps towards full democracy in Hong Kong. Over several months, they held a number of meetings to see which formulas apply to the election of the Chief Executive. Through an internal vote, they came up with three choices, all containing universal suffrage and the popular appointment of the governor of Hong Kong. The local government and the China want to impose a universal vote for a committee, in which candidates are chosen by them. Thus rendering universal suffrage useless.

With the referendum, the movement gave people a chance to express themselves. It 'was an enormous and expensive undertaking. Especially since the government did nothing to help.

You could vote online or at the polls, for those not familiar with the internet. But at this point there was a great division among the Democrats: some, whose proposal among the three choices had not been accepted, began to criticize the others saying that they were "too radical" and "impossible to accept" for Beijing. And there was a lot of division.

For my part, I suggested that the  important thing was to vote, not the specific proposal. What was important was the participation: that means that the population of HK wants to decide its political fate. My proposal was accepted. And the divisions were put aside. Even those whose proposals had been defeated - such as some Democrats and the same Anson Chan [former secretary general of the government] - decided to participate.

After that the proposal was made to march through the city, calling the people to go and vote for this referendum, which while not official, was very significant. We marched for 12 hours a day, for a whole week.

Despite all the difficulties, the referendum was a success, with approximately 800 thousand participants!

It was a great triumph of democracy and sensibility of the people of Hong Kong. To vote people had to wait maybe for hours on the internet, or walk far to go to the polls, which because they were so few, were not close to their home. Moreover, the schools did not dare accommodate us for fear of government reprisals; Instead, the Catholic Church made several locations available. In all of this, Catholics and Protestants have played a big part.

So there's a great revival of the civic sensibilities among the people of Hong Kong

Yes, and there are several signs. Before the vote, Beijing issued a "White Paper" which explained the "Basic Law" [the establishment of Hong Kong, which was approved by China and Britain, which guarantees "a high degree of autonomy to the territory]. But it's a really shocking book! Basically it says that on the whole Beijing controls everything and that even the judges should be "patriotic." So at least 1800 judges and lawyers marched in silence, all dressed in black to vindicate the autonomy of the judiciary.

Even the vigil in memory of the massacre in Tiananmen Square this year saw a greater participation than other years.

And finally, there was the march of July 1. Police and organizers contend the numbers, but nonetheless there was an ocean of people. People came out walking, waiting up to three hours before starting. It began at 3pm and ended at 11 pm. It all took place in a peaceful manner, even if the police arrested some people for having "slowed down" the march.

"Occupy Central" had proposed to block the road until 8am the next morning, to force the government to respond.  I had advised them against it, but they did it all the same. It was a 'trial run' for the sit in that they plan to stage in the center in future. Everything happened in a peaceful manner, but the police arrested more than 500 people, including some members of parliament and three members of the Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace.

How do you see the future?

Our march, the one made by myself and other Catholics to entice people to vote for the referendum, has been described as "illegal", so now we risk being jailed! If they begin to arrest people, then I am going to hand myself in because I took part. They have to arrest me first. The government is plainly afraid of this movement and is trying to discourage and threaten it in every possible way. But the people are not afraid. For example, after the arrests on the evening of July 1, others presented themselves to police and demanding to be arrested and so were also imprisoned.

Those responsible for "Occupy Central", a Protestant pastor and two university professors, have to go to discuss our three proposals with the government. The project is this: we will present the proposal that took the most votes in the referendum. That was the "three lanes", which provides consultation and popular vote for the parliament and the commission. If the government accepts our proposal, fine. If the counterproposal is unacceptable and does not meet the universal democratic standard, then we will occupy the center with at least 10 thousand people.

If the government emerges with a Democratic proposal, but different from ours, we will propose this to people to vote for either one or the other.

Here in Hong Kong, there is some criticism from some sections of the business world, but the opponents of the government's attitude are many more and better qualified. Let's just hope that by the government will not stoop to using force.


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