Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen, arrested by police under China’s security law, is an ardent opponent of Beijing’s influence on the church in the city.

According to the Associated Press, Zen was born into a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932. He moved to Hong Kong in 1948, a year before the Communists took over the mainland.

He became Hong Kong’s bishop in 2002. Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal four years later. He left his post in the city in 2009.

The now 90-year-old often spoke about the lack of religious freedom in mainland China and had little trust in the country’s atheist ruling party.

China severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951. As a result, many Catholics in the country were at the crossroads of choosing between visiting state-approved churches or worshiping in underground congregations.

After the Communist Party climbed to power, it expelled overseas priests and imprisoned or put many Chinese priests into labor camps for decades. In addition, the Holy See and the Chinese regime conflicted over who could ordain bishops in the country.

The Vatican later tried to revitalize diplomacy with Beijing. But Zen was not supportive of it. In his view, the Vatican was compromising Christains’ rights.

In 2018, both sides reached a deal where China sent names to the Vatican for approval.

Zen wrote about a Vatican delegation requesting a bishop’s resignation to leave room for a Beijing-backed replacement. Zen also blogged about making a last-ditch trip to Rome to prevent an underground bishop from being replaced by a Beijing-favored but excommunicated bishop.

According to the Associated Press, he once cautioned that a settlement between the Vatican and China that gave Beijing too much power would put the country’s Catholics in a birdcage.

He embarked on a three-day hunger strike to protest a government attempt to limit the churches’ role in public schools.

Zen used to say, “The Communist government just wants the church to surrender, because they want complete control, not only of the Catholic church but all the religions.”

Zen also embraced the city’s pro-democracy movement and was a vocal opponent of anti-subversion legislation. According to the BBC, he had been attending pro-democracy campaigners’ court hearings and would join citizens in protests. As a result, he is often referred to as Grandpa Cardinal.

Hong Kong arrested him over his links to the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which aided pro-democracy demonstrators with legal and medical expenses. He was released on bail that night.

Sign up to receive our latest news!

By submitting this form, I agree to the terms.