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'Conscience of HK' Ordained Cardinal
Long-time advocate for social justice, Joseph Zen Zekiun hopes to foster Sino-Vatican ties
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-24 12:00 (KST)   
All this week in Hong Kong images of Rome have been splashed across TV screens and newspapers in anticipation of Joseph Zen Zekiun's official ordination today as cardinal in a consistory at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Zen will join 15 other clerics, including Korean Nicholas Cheong Jin Suk, in being elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI.

The 74-year old former bishop is widely admired and is often referred to as the "conscience of Hong Kong." When the announcement was first made Feb. 22, his inclusion was seen as a controversial choice. He has been a strong advocate for universal suffrage in Hong Kong and a vocal critic of China's human rights record. In 1998, Zen was banned from mainland China for 6 years after telling a Synod of Bishops at the Vatican there was no freedom of belief in China.

Advocate For Social Justice

In 2003, he was responsible for rallying support against a controversial anti-subversion law and participated in the 500,000-strong march on July 1st that eventually led to the bill's withdrawal.

More recently, in December 2005, during the anti-WTO demonstrations that rocked the city, Zen came to the defense of protesters who claimed police subjected them to "inhumane treatment." Zen said, "As a Hong Kong person, I feel ashamed. I want to apologize to the Korean farmers. What the Hong Kong police leaders have done is not appropriate."

The Hong Kong police resented Zen's actions and vowed to write a complaint letter to Pope Benedict.

Support For Chinese Catholics

Immediately following the Vatican's announcement, the Chinese government issued a warning stating, "We advocate that religious figures should not interfere with politics."

Zen has maintained that his involvement is not confined solely to politics, saying, "We don't like to call it politics. It's human rights, it's basic rights, it's not politics."

The decision to make Zen a cardinal is widely believed to be an expression of the Vatican's support for mainland China's Catholics, estimated to be more than 13 million. However, this figure is divided between the "official" church that makes up the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association and the larger "underground" church which remains loyal to Rome. The differences between them are believed to have become blurred in recent years, adding to hopes for reconciliation between the Vatican and Beijing.

Zen has been said to be stressing a more moderate line. He recently told the South China Morning Post, "I hope to help improve Sino-Vatican relations... The Holy Father loves China and people in China. Let's hope that thousands of Chinese pilgrims can come and visit the Vatican in the future."

Originally from Shanghai, Zen fled China to escape Communist rule in 1948 and traveled to Italy to study in 1955. In 1961, he became a priest and settled in Hong Kong, eventually succeeding as bishop in 2002.

The Catholic Church was established in Hong Kong in 1841. The diocese's 310 priests serve over 250,000 Catholics, including Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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