Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested a retired Roman Catholic cardinal who had served as the city’s bishop and at least three others on charges of “colluding with foreign forces to endanger China’s national security,” according to media reports.
Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, was released on bail from Chai Wan Police Station at 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Hong Kong Free Press tweeted. He is said to be “in frail health,” according to a report in America magazine, a Jesuit publication.
The cardinal “did not speak. He then entered a private car parked outside the police station. The 90-year-old was accompanied by five people when he left the police station,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Three other trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Fund, a now-disbanded group that provided financial assistance to pro-democracy demonstrators in the city, were arrested with Cardinal Zen. Actress-singer Denise Ho, attorney Margaret Ng and scholar Hui Po-keung were detained under provisions of the 2020 National Security Law that Beijing enacted in the aftermath of pro-democracy demonstrations in the former British colony.
Some media reports indicated a fourth trustee had been detained. No word was immediately available on the bail status of any of the trustees.
“Freedom of expression are critical to prosperous and secure societies,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during an Air Force One press briefing.
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“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.
Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, tore into China’s leadership over the arrest.
“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,” he added.
Former U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called the move “a new low” for the country, adding, “China’s leadership should be sanctioned immediately for their wanton disregard of the rule of law and basic civil liberties.”
Katrina Lantos Swett, a former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said via Twitter, “China‘s use of its draconian National Security Law against Cardinal Zen in #HongKong is absolutely outrageous, and we should all be incredibly concerned at the thought that religious leaders are now becoming targets of the CCP’s brutal crackdown.”
Cardinal Zen was bishop of the Hong Kong Diocese from 2000 to 2009. He had been a harsh critic of the 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China that recognized the appointment of bishops acceptable to China’s communist government.
The Vatican expressed concern Wednesday about 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.
Global reaction was almost uniformly negative. 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 later added 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.