Cardinal Joseph Zen, a 90-year-old retired Roman Catholic bishop and critic of China’s communist regime, was among several pro-democracy advocates arrested by Hong Kong police Wednesday and released on bail late at night.
The White House was among those expressing condemnation and concern over the jailing of Cardinal Zen and his former colleagues at the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which assisted protesters with legal and medical bills. The fund closed last year in the wake of a strict 2020 law imposed on the former British colony by China’s government in Beijing.
“Freedom of expression [is] critical to prosperous and secure societies,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during an Air Force One briefing.
“We call on PRC [People’s Republic of China] and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates and to immediately release those who have been unjustly detained and charged, like the Cardinal Joseph Zen … and others arrested today,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.
Neither the Hong Kong government nor authorities in Beijing commented on the arrests.
Three other trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Fund were arrested with Cardinal Zen, reports indicated. Actress-singer Denise Ho, attorney Margaret Ng and scholar Hui Po-keung were also detained. Amnesty International, a human rights group, said a fifth trustee of the now-defunct group, Cyd Ho, was already detained on other charges and remains imprisoned.
“Even by Hong Kong’s recent standards of worsening repression, these arrests represent a shocking escalation,” Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director Erwin van der Borght said in a statement. “Some of the city’s most respected pro-democracy figures, whose activism has always been entirely peaceful, are now potentially facing years in jail. There could be few more poignant examples of the utter disintegration of human rights in Hong Kong.”
Among several voices in Congress decrying the arrest, Sen. Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, tore into China’s leadership.
“Chairman Xi – the world’s most powerful dictator – is absolutely terrified of a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal. Xi is a pathetic coward,” the Nebraska Republican said in a statement. “The Chinese Communist Party cannot erase the courage of Cardinal Zen and other Chinese heroes.”
Former U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called the move “a new low” for the country, saying, “China’s leadership should be sanctioned immediately for their wanton disregard of the rule of law and basic civil liberties.”
The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also attacked the move.
“Today’s detention of Cardinal Joseph Zen on a national security charge presents an ominous sign for further deterioration of human rights, including religious freedom, in Hong Kong,” Nadine Maenza said.
Cardinal Zen was born in Shanghai and raised in a Catholic family whose parents took him to Mass five times each Sunday. He was made bishop of the Hong Kong Diocese in 2000, elevated to the office of Cardinal in 2006, and retired in 2009. He was a harsh critic of the 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China that recognized the appointment of bishops as acceptable to China’s communist government.
At the time, BBC News reported, the prelate blasted the deal in a Facebook post: “Do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all they are doing in recent years and months.”
Despite the apparent disagreement, the Vatican expressed concern Wednesday over Cardinal Zen’s detention.
“The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention,” said papal spokesman Matteo Bruni, according to the official Vatican News service.
Condemnation poured in from around the globe. Lord David Alton, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, called the arrest “an act of outrageous intimidation” on Twitter.
Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, also took to Twitter to express her concern.
“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years,” Ms. Wang tweeted.
She also said that arresting the human rights advocates, “days after the Chinese government’s anointment of former security chief John Lee as the city’s chief executive, is an ominous sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong is only going to escalate.”
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.