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Cardinal Zen on China

6/6/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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"Numerous Nameless Heroes of the Church"

MILAN, Italy, JUNE 6, 2006 (Zenit) - Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong is the latest recipient of the Defensor Fidei prize, conferred annually by the Italian review Il Timone.

The cardinal was chosen for the Defender of the Faith award, in part, because "he has been a faithful witness of the Gospel of Christ; he has looked after and made himself the guarantor of all Chinese Catholics," the review said.

On receiving the award, the cardinal granted an interview in which he explained that "the color red that I wear means the will of a cardinal to shed his own blood. But it is not my blood which has been shed; it is the blood and tears of numerous nameless heroes of the official and underground Church, who suffered for being faithful to the Church."

Q: How many nameless heroes are there of the Church in China?

Cardinal Zen: Some have tried to make this calculation but it seems impossible to me to give an exact number.

The only certain thing is that there have been very many. Many died in prison, in concentration camps and in forced labor. Many others died of serious sicknesses contracted in prison.

There are also those who have survived 20-30 years in prison and tortures; they too are martyrs. It is a form of modern martyrdom. It is not crucifixion or immediate violent death but a very long suffering, endured in many years of isolation.

There are people who entered a prison or concentration when they were younger than 20 and left when they were already elderly and with ruined health.

I am thinking of many youths of the Legion of Mary, who went to prison in Shanghai in the '50s, the majority laymen rather than priests or nuns, who do not have a family to think about. And yet, I have seen many of them leave the prisons with joy and serenity: a great testimony.

But we must not forget the sufferings of the families either. Imagine parents who see a child snatched from them, without ever again knowing where he is or what befell him.

Q: One often hears that the situation has improved today.

Cardinal Zen: It depends what is meant. No doubt the Chinese regime -- which has more exchanges with the outside today and is more observed -- must be more careful, less brutal.

For example, bishops who are arrested don't go to prison but to isolated places; their detention is not as long. This does not deny the fact that the two bishops of Baoding have disappeared and their whereabouts are unknown.

I would say, however, that the most important evolution is happening within the official Church itself, with an ever clearer communion with the Pope.

And one sees that, when the priests are united, even the regime must give way, as demonstrated by the appointments of Shanghai and Xian: proposed by the Pope but formally chosen by the local clergy, so that the government was not able to say anything.

Q: Also in your Diocese of Hong Kong, you are often in the limelight because of your firm position in defense of freedom and democracy.

Cardinal Zen: In Hong Kong the situation is obviously different. We have never had persecution as in the rest of China.

Here the main enemy is secularism. Despite this, our Church in Hong Kong maintains its own vitality and we have an average of 2,000 baptisms a year.

After 1997, with the return of Hong Kong to China, the situation has changed and the Church has had the duty to defend the weakest and the poor. Furthermore, it is the Church that teaches us to be concerned for the whole man; we are called to put the leaven of humanity in social relations.

Q: You have created a reputation for yourself of being hard, of openly confronting the Chinese regime without much circumlocution. Is this the right strategy to deal with Beijing?

Cardinal Zen: I have never premeditated how I will act. In fact, I have intervened strongly on two issues: the first to defend the canonization of the Chinese martyrs, held on October 1, 2000.

The government invented a letter signed by all the Chinese bishops protesting this canonization. But it was false; the government knew that the vast majority of bishops did not agree. So I intervened harshly to unmask this attempt to discredit the Pope.

My other intervention was on the issue of democracy, more precisely on religious freedom. Beijing has already openly violated the "Basic Law" [Hong Kong's mini-Constitution] and has tried to hinder religious freedom. We Catholics, though a minority, have become parents of the whole people, a point of reference. This is how the demonstration was born that took half a million citizens to the streets.

Q: Do you think that China might soon be "resigned" to open a true dialogue with the Holy See and abandon its prejudices?

Cardinal Zen: I think so. Today China sends many people abroad, whether or not of the government.

Little by little, they realize that, in the rest of the world, countries have no problem accepting the Pope's naming of bishops, that this does not contradict love for the homeland or being good citizens. In this way, many problems might be surmounted.

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Keywords

China, Zen, Hong Kong, Church

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