Outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom for his work in opposition to communism at a ceremony in Washington on Monday, during which he expressed concern that Hong Kong’s promised autonomy from China has all but disappeared.
The medal, awarded annually by the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, is given to individuals and institutions that have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to freedom and democracy, while opposing communism and other forms of tyranny, according to the foundation’s website.
In accepting the award, the 87-year-old emeritus bishop of Hong Kong said that while “true” Marxism is no longer present in China, “the atheist persecutor dictatorship remains,” and has sought to exert control over all religion in the country, including in his city, which was guaranteed a continuation of existing rights and freedoms for at least 50 years under a 1997 agreement handing it over from Britain.
“Of the promised high degree of autonomy, very little remains,” Zen said, adding that “we are soon to become just one of the cities in China.”
“I want to remember many of those heroes who are suffering at this moment in China or Hong Kong for voicing their claim for respect of their dignity, for freedom, and for democracy—those well-known and those anonymous heroes.”
Speaking to RFA after the ceremony, Zen highlighted a provisional agreement between the Vatican and China, which he said indicates that the head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong “will need a blessing from Beijing” to appoint bishops.
“This suggests Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ principle is about to disappear,” he said.
“I hope the Vatican will stand their ground and appoint a bishop who can truly lead our diocese and protect our religious life.”
When asked if Hong Kong’s Liaison Office of China’s central government had interfered in the appointment of bishops in his city, Zen said he was unsure, but had heard from multiple sources that “the candidate is chosen” by Beijing.
Zen said he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican this month for half an hour, during which time “he listened to me attentively,” but the Holy See had not replied to repeated letters in which he had expressed concern over the provisional agreement to appoint bishops.
“They’re making their own judgement on matters that I disagree with,” he said.
“We Catholics are praying for [the pope]. With God’s blessings, we pray he won’t make mistakes.”
Ahead of Monday’s award ceremony, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation executive director Marion Smith told the Union of Catholic Asian News agency that Zen had “given voice to those denied religious liberty and has opposed the collusion of the Vatican and Chinese Communist Party on the matter of ecclesiastical appointments.”
Past recipients of the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom include Pope St. John Paul II, Romania's Bishop Laszlo Tokes, Vietnamese priest Nguyen Van Ly, and Chinese activists Chen Guangcheng, Yang Jianli and Wei Jingsheng.
In September, China’s Communist Party and the Vatican reached an agreement over the appointment of bishops, drawing mixed reactions from Christians in China who warned that religious repression would likely intensify on unofficial churches in the country.
The controversial deal eliminates the division between bishops and churches recognized by the government-backed Catholic Patriotic Association and those appointed by Rome, which will likely result in an expansion of the Catholic Church in China, where followers number around 12 million.
But rights groups and leading Catholics have warned that religious persecution continues unabated under the administration of President Xi Jinping amid heavy-handed controls by religious affairs officials.
Under the agreement, Rome will now recognize seven bishops appointed by the Chinese state, and the agreement sees the founding of a new Catholic diocese in Chengde, in the northern province of Hebei.
In November, authorities in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang detained Bishop Peter (in Italian, Pietro) Shao of Wenzhou, a Catholic bishop recognized by the Vatican but not by the ruling Chinese Communist Party—weeks after the agreement was reached.
Beijing asserts that all religions are subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party within China's borders, and that religious believers must "be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people ... and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly in recent decades.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants. Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in non-recognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Shawn Fok and Marlin Ma for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated by Karen Zhang. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.