Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), has expressed “profound concern” over what he described as “threats to religious freedom” in Hong Kong following the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen last week.
“I call on Catholics and the wider Christian community around the world to pray for Hong Kong,” read Cardinal Bo’s statement on Saturday, May 14. He called on the international community “to continue to monitor the situation and speak out for freedom and justice.”
Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen was arrested on May 11 over his role as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters to pay their legal fees.
In 2020, a sweeping National Security Law came into force, criminalizing previously protected civil liberties under the headings of “sedition“ and “foreign collusion.”
“For the people of Hong Kong it is now increasingly difficult to speak out freely, so those of us outside Hong Kong who have a voice must use it on their behalf,” said Cardinal Bo in his statement released to media.
The prelate asked for prayers and solidarity to show support for the people of Hong Kong “in the hope that one day their freedoms will be restored.”
“My brother cardinal, His Eminence Joseph Zen, was arrested and faces charges simply because he served as a trustee of a fund which provided legal aid to activists facing court cases,” said Cardinal Bo.
“In any system where the rule of law exists, providing assistance to help people facing prosecution meet their legal fees is a proper and accepted right. How can it be a crime to help accused persons have legal defense and representation?” he added.
The cardinal noted that Hong Kong used to be one of Asia’s freest and most open cities. “Today, it has been transformed into a police state” where freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, and academic freedom “have all been dismantled,” he said.
He said there are early signs that freedom of religion or belief, a human right set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a party, is “threatened.”
“I am aware of recent propaganda attacks against the Church in pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong, and of growing self-censorship among religious leaders due to the circumstances,” said the cardinal.
“To see a city that was a beacon for freedom, including religious freedom, move so radically and swiftly down a much darker and more repressive path is heartbreaking. To see a government in China break its promises made in an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, so repeatedly and blatantly, is appalling,” added Cardinal Bo.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration assures the autonomy of the former British colony from China under the “one country, two systems” agreement of 1984 and when the United Kingdom transferred control over Hong Kong to Beijing beginning 1997.