EXCLUSIVE: The Vatican got nothing, while China received everything, says Hong Kong's Cardinal Zen

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Praphul SinghUpdated: Nov 23, 2020, 06:52 PM IST


Story highlights

In an exclusive conversation with WION, Cardinal Joseph Zen reveals how the secret Vatican-China deal has worsened the situation for Catholics in China and Hong Kong

China and the Vatican renewed a secretive agreement signed two years ago. It allows both Beijing and the Vatican a say in appointing Bishops in China. The agreement gives Pope a final say in the appointments of the Bishop in China, but Beijing is the one that will have to come up with the choices.

Chinese authorities had previously selected bishops without the say of the Vatican. And a division formed between state-sanctioned clergy — and underground bishops who operated outside state control. 

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The former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has spoken up about this. Cardinal Zen was born in Shanghai 88 years ago. He came to Hong Kong in 1948, just before the communist took power in China.

Cardinal Zen accuses says this deal is a betrayal to the 12 million Catholic population. 

In an exclusive conversation with Praphul Singh from WION, Cardinal Joseph Zen reveals how the secret Vatican-China deal has worsened the situation for Catholics in China and Hong Kong.

WION: How do you see the two years of agreement between China and the Vatican? Did it improve anything in China for the Catholics?

Cardinal Zen: I don't even know the content of the agreement, the agreement is a secret, even for me, a Chinese cardinal. But then you can guess that the content is not very important. I mean, before this written agreement there was a compromise in the nomination of the Bishops. I mean, they had a kind of secret mutual understanding and then they try to appoint somebody acceptable to both, somebody, not the best but acceptable to both. But what happened with this deal is very much alarming because using this agreement they did many wrong things. They never named any Bishops in these 2 years. The two Bishops ordained in these 2 years were already agreed upon. But then, they legitimise 7 Bishops. Presenting it as a part of the agreement, but the agreement should be about future Bishops, not the bishops they ordained several years ago. Not, the legitimisation of those 7 is unacceptable. The people completely working for the govt, not for the church. They were ordained without permission of the Pope and during all those years they were defiant, disrespecting all the doctrines of faith and all the rules of cardinal law. They used the power, which they took by force. To ordain priests, to ordain the bishops, it was very bad behaviour over the years. And with this legitimisation, they should show some repentance of what they did. They should promise in some way to behave but nothing like that. They just went around triumphant because they succeeded by the pressure of the govt to be recognised as Bishops. Then the Holy Sea impose such people on the faithful. It is a very cruel thing. Among them, there are two of them who doesn't follow the celibacy, just imagine. It is very sad, the holy sea got nothing but lost everything.

WION: Why do you think a Vatican-China deal is harming the Catholics in China?
Cardinal Zen: Sometimes they say a bad agreement is better than no agreement, that's impossible to understand because a bad thing is bad. You may accept an imperfect agreement but not a bad agreement. The agreement is very bad because any agreement should be fair to both sides. And so both sides should gain something, but we gained nothing and the Chinese Government gained everything. I think in the negotiations, they should mention the Bishops and the arrest but nothing happened, even more, harsh persecution. 

WION: Do you think that the Vatican is giving legitimacy to the Communist Party of China and their ways of persecuting the Catholics in China?

Cardinal Zen: In a big secret that the agreement is, the government use it to demand the faithful to do everything they want. For eg., they tell the underground churches to come out and join the independent church, if the people they, no, it isn't allowed, it is against our Catholic effect. The official says, no, the Pope has agreed already. But since the people don't know the content of the agreement, they are confused, if it is the Pope who has approved everything? Even the Vatican recognises something the govt is demanding was not in the agreement. But then last year a document came from the Holy Sea, encouraging the people to join the independent church. That's incredible because that church, that community is the cosmetic church, not the true catholic church. The Popes from all these years have abstained from calling it cosmetic church just because there were several good bishops, good priests and good people, but the situation worsened year by year just because of the wrong policy by the Holy Sea. This policy of compromise is a surrender. We didn't get the agreement but the agreement was a pretext, was an instrument in the hands of the government to persecute the church.

WION: You feel very strongly against the deal, so much so, that you flew to Rome a couple of years back to express your views? What did you say to Pope and how did he respond to it?
Cardinal Zen: I flew to Rome several times in the year 2018 because I couldn't be sure that the Pope have been receiving my letters, the many letters that I have written to him. So I went to Rome to give letters to his hands, twice. He was very kind to see me and even give me a personal audience. But he did not answer my questions and last year towards the end of June a document came from the Holy Sea encouraging the people to join the Independent Church. It's a very contradictory attitude from the Holy Sea. On one side, they say, we have no agreement from the government so that the underground should come to the independent church, but then they encourage the underground priests to accept and sign the document for registration to become part of the independent church, that's terrible, that's why I took to the flight the next day to Rome, I asked the holy father to be present in the discussion between me and Cardinal Parolin, he was the author of the document, but I could not have that. The Holy Father even invited me to the supper with Cardinal Parolin but not to have such a discussion. I came back empty-handed, but not completely empty-handed, coz I could an embarrassment in the eyes of the Holy Father. It is also clear that Parolin, the Secretary of State is manipulating the Holy Father which is very saddening to see.

WION: How risky is it for people to worship in underground churches of China?
Cardinal Zen: The underground church means a church which is against the law. So they can be any moment arrested and brought to prison. But, for many years the govt in some places, sometimes even tolerated the underground community. Why? Because they are good, hard-working, well-behaved people. In villages, they are the majority of people behaving very well, no fighting, no quarrels and so they just wanted a place to be able to worship. So the govt closed its eyes. In several places, there were churches, big buildings and they could worship there. In big cities like Shanghai, they couldn't allow the churches, but they allowed underground churches and allowed mass to happen. Everybody knew that it couldn't be a secret. But, two years ago, when they signed the agreement, the govt started to enforce those laws and they started to take away the churches because they said now you have to join the independent church, it is already recognised as the only church by the Holy Father. They told the priest that they cannot say the mass anymore in secret. The priest told the people to not go to the mass anymore because it was too dangerous. The government may arrest them, find them, they may lose all their money, their property and they may end up going to prison. But then, there are also other laws which they did not enforce before but after the agreement, they did enforce the law. One of the law was very harsh and terrible, any person below 18 years of age are not allowed to go to the church, are not allowed to join any religious activities. So all these activities were done on the pretext of the agreement, it was not written in the agreement. They used the agreement to enforce these things after the agreement was signed, so things are much worse than before.

WION: What kind of methods does China use to enforce a ban on underground churches? Do they arrest the Bishops? What do they do with them?
Cardinal Zen: The underground bishops, they are always in danger of being arrested. Sometimes they arrest them and put them in prison. We have even 1 Bishop who disappeared 20 years ago, we don't even know whether he is still alive or dead. Several other Bishops gets arrested from time to time and then released. Mostly before summer Church festivities with continuous harassment. They use both the threats and enticement, they also use the family to threaten. They (Chinese Officials) may come to you and say, your brother is having difficulties at the workplace, do you want us to put in a word for him? If you agree to it, you will have to obey to them, but if you do not agree with them and say that you can manage on your own, then they will get your family member fired because the government can do anything. They will offer you to help your sick parents and if you agree you will feel obliged to obey to them, but if you deny to their help, they will order the hospital to not accept your sick family members. They use all kind of tactics. That's why the underground church over the years started weakening because we all are human beings and under such difficult situations people tend to give up and now with the Holy Sea allowing people to join the independent church, people are doing so unaware of the agreement. But still, there are many people left who aren't crumbling under the pressure as they think that this isn't allowed in their Catholic Doctrine.

WION: Do you think that Pope Francis is being lenient towards China and Xi Xinping? Also, does this mean that the Vatican is trying to appease Beijing just to have a deal with them? 
Cardinal Zen: They call this leniency, appeasement or politics, that means this is made to the use by the Chairman of the CCP or the government. The reason is since the communist maybe there for long we had to engage them and not ignore them completely. The Pope and the Vatican are practising that policy. The Pope who is very courageous to blame certain govt and unjust activities of those government never said any word to tell the Chinese govt that they should improve their human rights issue records. They should grant religious freedom. That is very sad. Not only for the Catholic church but similar persecution of the protestant church. because they tear down the crosses from their church, demolishing their churches as well. Even for the Buddhists in Tibet to the Muslims in Xinjiang, everybody knows what happens in those concentrations camps. The Chinese officials try to destroy their culture not only their faith. The ways through which they enforce including sterilization, they're doing something like genocide. Even people outside the church say why the Pope doesn't say anything about what China is doing. It is very sad. The Pope has spiritual power and he should use that power to encourage the govt to the better to change their ways. But, seemingly he believes that by this compromise, this leniency he can get anything, but the facts show that he got nothing during all these years.

WION: Aren't you scared of the new security law imposed by China and that you speaking out against the so-called deal might result in your arrest? Do you think that the deal is, in fact, a betrayal towards the Catholic Community in China? 
Cardinal Zen: When Hong Kong went back under the sovereignty of the Chinese govt they promise a high degree of autonomy and one country-two system. So they gave us the basic law which is like a mini-constitution and in that law Article-23 said, in HK we should have our law to guarantee the security of our nation. But, it was a failure because they drafted a very bad law. But now the CCP made a new law for us, with now consultation in the harshest terms. So we lost everything, even the freedom of speech. If we say anything against the govt we can be arrested, brought to mainland China with no lawyers to assist or even visited by our family members. This is a terrible new law. Do some people ask if you're afraid? I say, nowadays nobody in Hong Kong can feel safe because we are under such a limited faith. This is a betrayal to what they promised us. During the first years, we may have had some illusion that they may live by some promises but slowly we got to know that the central government is going back on their promises. We felt that we were more and more controlled by the Central Govt with very less autonomy. There is something very bad for everybody from people in Hong Kong to our relation with China. Even for China, it's sad, because HK is still very useful for China, but with this new law Hong Kong is just like any other city of Mainland China. The new law made all the people and country doing business with China lose their trust. They cannot trust the govt anymore, because we lost the rule of law. It's something terrible and a big betrayal. All of a sudden even many courageous people said that they wanted to leave Hong Kong, while some were scared to say anything as it can be damaging. It looks like the end of anything. We are really at the bottom. We hope that the whole world notices the terrible change in our situation and they may encourage the Chinese govt to be wiser. It is very dangerous today and I encourage people to go away if they are in the position to do that. Especially the people with children to go away because the education here is being used for brainwashing them.

WION: Is there a way that this deal can be modified for the better of the Catholic's in China? 
Cardinal Zen: You can be optimistic and pessimistic but you must have a foundation for that. There can be no optimism in this situation because there is no foundation. There are facts to see, the world can see that the Chinese totalitarian system is built on lies, they make fake promises and hide the truth, so there is no basis of any optimism. We must be cautious not to be deceived anymore, but then what we do for the church? We are in no position to do anything because we are confronting an enormous force and a strong govt and we have only the moral strength to resist peacefully against the persecution. It's imp for us to keep our faith, not to surrender our faith, we can even sacrifice the sacraments, when you are arrested you cannot keep the sacraments but your faith is in your hearts, to help you but you cannot deny your faith. People can be more prudent, don't provoke the regime because they can be terrible but in certain moments, tell the truth and do not support the lies. All religious leaders are forced to declare their very difficult position. How can you say that the new security law doesn't take away the religious freedom? It takes away all freedoms along with religious freedoms. In the mainland, all the religions have to cynicism or assimilate to be made Chinese. We must understand that it is about accepting the Chinese government and its authority, the authority of the communist party which cannot be accepted. The only thing we can do is raising questions. We can ask why the new security law is so harsh on us. We are in no position to do anything to harm the security of the country. We can ask, why are you going back to the basic law? Why are you risking your prestige in the international community? Why aren't you keeping your promises, because the people realise that you don't keep promise along with other nations? You don't respect your promises which is very damaging to the CCP too. We can raise questions but if we will say that this is a very bad law then we will be brought to the court in China. We have to avoid saying things too clearly. The most threatening thing is what they do to education. They don't respect the teachers, they disqualify the teachers who don't even say anything. The management committee of the schools says the teachers have done nothing wrong yet they face actions.