China yesterday defended the arrest of a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, a move that triggered international outrage and deepened concerns over Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in the territory.
Retired cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君), one of the most senior Catholic clerics in Asia, was among a group of veteran democracy advocates arrested on Wednesday for “colluding with foreign forces.”
Pop singer Denise Ho (何韻詩), veteran barrister Margaret Ng (吳靄儀) and cultural studies academic Hui Po-keung (許寶強) were also arrested, the latter as he attempted to fly to Europe to take up an academic post.
Cyd Ho (何秀蘭), a democracy advocate currently in jail over a previous protest conviction, was arrested yesterday.
“The persons concerned are suspected of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security — an act of severe nature,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affair’s office in Hong Kong said.
Hong Kong’s government said that the religious background of those arrested was “completely irrelevant” and that “no one can enjoy a privilege above the law.”
The five were detained for being trustees of a now-disbanded defense fund that helped pay legal and medical costs for people arrested during democracy protests three years ago.
Beijing responded with a broad campaign to crush the movement and transform the territory so that it more closely resembles mainland China.
Zen and his colleagues, who were released on bail late on Wednesday, join more than 180 Hong Kongers arrested to date under the security law imposed to stop the protests.
Criticism came from Western nations, who have accused China of eviscerating the freedoms it once promised Hong Kong.
The US, which has sanctioned key Chinese officials over the crackdown, called on Beijing to “cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates.”
British Minister of State for Europe and North America James Cleverly told Parliament in Londin yesterday that the arrests were “unacceptable.”
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly called the arrests “deeply troubling.”
Denise Ho is also a Canadian national.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said that he was following the arrests with “great concern,” while Human Rights Watch called it a “shocking new low for Hong Kong.”
The Vatican said it was concerned by Zen’s arrest and “following the development of the situation very closely.”
Zen fled Shanghai for Hong Kong after the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 and rose to become bishop of the territory.
A long-term advocate for Hong Kong’s democracy movement, he has accused the Vatican of “selling out” China’s underground Catholic Church by reaching a compromise with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in mainland China.
The Hong Kong diocese yesterday said that it was “extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen.”
“We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law,” it said in a statement, referencing the mini-constitution of the territory that is meant to guarantee key freedoms.
Zen’s arrest sent shockwaves through Hong Kong’s Catholic community.
“The arrest of cardinal Zen is a blow for the entire church in Hong Kong, China and the world,” Hong Kong-based Italian missionary Franco Mella, 73, told reporters. “It has become obvious that there is a Damocles sword above Zen and other church people.”
A church visitor yesterday who gave her name as Laura said congregants feared that suppression of religion could be coming to Hong Kong.
“The space for religious freedom has apparently shrunk, because even a Catholic cardinal is now under arrest,” she said.
Ta Kung Pao published an article accusing those arrested of “six crimes,” including funding lobbying trips and “activist meetings” with British lawmakers, providing financial aid to Hong Kong “rioters” who had fled to Taiwan and Canada, and accepting donations from overseas and the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper.
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