Cardinal Zen Ze-Kium: 'Tyranny is Encouraged by Silence'

Hong Kong Prelate Speaks to ZENIT about the Battle for Religious Liberty in China

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Next to the name of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, should be the title “fighter.”

There is no battle that the Salesian Cardinal has not undertaken in his country, always within the scope of religious liberty, social equality and human rights. Two years ago, at the age of 79, he even endured a long hunger strike against the increase of government controls on Catholic schools.

After making him a cardinal in 2006, Benedict XVI wanted him to be his personal adviser on matters regarding China. Even today, the cardinal does not give up. With a sharp-witted spirit and “without diplomacy” (as the title of his book-interview of 2008 stated), he hopes for profound change in his homeland. ZENIT met this week with Cardinal Zen, who is in Rome for the opening of the Academic Year of the Pontifical Lateran University.

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ZENIT: Eminence, for years you have fought for religious liberty and the promotion of human rights in your country. Have your battles borne fruit today?

Cardinal Zen: In reality, I don’t feel so grandiose. I simply believe that when one is put in a position of importance, one is called to do his duty. Above all in a context such as that of China, where tragic moments are still experienced because of the dictatorship of the Party that has lasted for years. Despite the fact that an opening has been reached from the economic point of view, there still hasn’t been any change in politics and religion. There is absolute control, contempt for the Church, the humiliation of our Bishops. Some of them have been in prison for ten years! We, who in Hong Kong still have freedom of speech, must make our voice heard and say what we think, because harmony is lacking in China. There are those who are content at least with an apparent harmony, precisely to avoid any clash. But this is mistaken! — because arrogance is encouraged by silence. Instead, it is a duty to continue to talk and to protest, especially for religious liberty.

ZENIT: In addition to the “suffocation” of the Catholic faith, what other problems are faced in Hong Kong and your homeland in general?

Cardinal Zen: Injustices, discriminations, policies of collective egoism against certain types of people,  for instance, the new arrivals on the continent or some minorities present. Unfortunately, this has become a culture, a culture, however, that is detrimental, which did not originate in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong has an age-old tradition of hospitality and generosity, of social teachings of the Doctrine of the Church.

ZENIT: In this whole situation, there are the 12 million Catholics of the country, still hemmed-in by the clamp of the Party’s control, but desiring to live their faith with greater openness.

Cardinal Zen: There is always this dilemma. If we surrender to the government, then there is a kind of liberty. Now the government even gives money for evangelization. For me, however, this isn’t true liberty, it’s a slavery, because if we sell the nature of the Church to evangelize, we don’t know what Gospel we take to the people. In this sense, the Pope has always spoken clearly: he encourages people to give up present success, to accept the present failure, to be faithful to the nature of the Church, as opposed to these “opportunists” who sell themselves to the government.

ZENIT: Who are you referring to?

Cardinal Zen: Those, for instance, who let themselves be ordained easily as Bishops. I don’t want to generalize, there are those who do so because they are constrained, and are ordained with great pain in their heart. 

ZENIT: You referred to Pope Francis. What effect do the words of the new Pontiff have in China?

Cardinal Zen: I don’t know about China in general, if there is a contact or, in any case, information regarding the Holy Father. I can say that in Hong Kong, we are very happy with this Pope and that we rejoice in hearing certain words of his. I think, however, that they have hopes in him, even if up to now Pope Francis has not said much on the situation in China. And I think this is very wise.

ZENIT: Pope Francis is showing great openness towards the other great Communist colossus: Russia. On November 25 he will meet with President Putin. Yesterday, in fact, he received in audience the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations. In your opinion, is there hope that a path can be opened for the Pontiff in the People’s Republic of China?

Cardinal Zen: In Russia there is, certainly, a different situation. Communism has lost all power; there is the Orthodox Church which is a mixture of religion and politics, etc. It’s different in China. Our Pope Francis gives us all hope and commitment, but we don’t even know who is our counterpart with whom to speak. For the time being, no encouraging sign is seen from the Chinese government. From what is leaked, it seems that it wishes to reform the Party, but the objective is, nevertheless, to command forever, because it is thought that letting go the grip, one ends like Russia and power is lost. However, I trust the new leader of the nation [Xi Jinping], given the precedents with his father (Xi Zhongxun) who was an honest and open man. Let’s hope that he is aware that he must change the politics.

ZENIT: For the time being, therefore, a trip of the Pope to China, for instance, would be impossible?

Cardinal Zen: A trip of this importance requires that the condition be ripe. Otherwise, one ends as in other cases: that the Chinese government manipulates the people. This is known. So many cardinals have come, but what have they resolved? They haven’t done anything. They let themselves be photographed and embraced by illegitimate Bishops, and, returning to their countries, they have praised China, when instead they saw nothing of the truth.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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Salvatore Cernuzio

Crotone, Italy Bachelor's degree in Communication Sciences, Information and Marketing (2008) and Master's degree in Publishing and Journalism (2010) from LUMSA University of Rome. Vatican Radio. Rome Seven. "Ecclesia in Urbe. Social Communications Office of the Vicariate of Rome. Second place in the Youth category of the second edition of the Giuseppe De Carli Prize for religious information.

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