ROME – On the eve of an historic meeting between the foreign ministers of the Vatican and China Friday, retired Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen, who’s been bitterly critical of the Vatican’s approach to Beijing, received a prize from the U.S. government for his advocacy of human rights and religious freedom.

In December, Zen, the 87-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was selected as 2019’s winner of the Washington-based Wei Jingsheng Foundation’s “Wei Jingsheng Chinese Democracy Champion Prize.”

In a statement announcing Zen as the recipient, the foundation said, “He has always supported the Hong Kong democratic movement and strongly opposed communist interference in the missionary activities and religious freedom of the Church.”

“He has not only spoken out against the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong over the years but has also supported its people in fighting for genuine universal suffrage,” they said, also praising Zen’s pleas to support the people of Hong Kong amid ongoing political unrest.

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In a Feb. 13 tweet containing photos of herself awarding the prize to Zen, United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she was “honored” to present him with the award, saying Zen “inspires all who work to protect those fighting for their beliefs.”

Named after Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist Wei Jingsheng who has dedicated his life to opposing China’s communist government, the prize has been announced each year on Dec. 5 since 2004. Individuals selected for the prize are judged to have made significant contributions on behalf of democracy in China.

Zen retired as bishop of Hong Kong in 2009 but has remained a vocal opponent of the Chinese Communist Party and has openly decried what he says are blatant government-sponsored human rights abuses. He has also been one of the most ferocious opponents to the Vatican’s 2018 provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, at times accusing the pope of “selling out” Christians in the country.

In a series of tweets sent Feb. 14 after receiving the Wei Jingsheng prize, Zen thanked the foundation and Pelosi for the award, saying he is “ashamed,” “encouraged,” and “extremely grateful.”

“I am ashamed that I have never paid a heavy price” to fight for democracy like others have, he said, adding that he is encouraged that the foundation “actually praises and encourages all countless people to persevere in mainland China and Hong Kong, sacrificing everything for democracy. Warriors.”

Pointing to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Zen noted that many Chinese have “shed blood” for democracy, insisting that this has not been “in vain.” Rather, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faithful,” he said, insisting that this seed has “sprouted.”

“I am convinced that the small tree of freedom and democracy is about to bear fruit, and God’s help will not be delayed any longer. Let us Chinese children scattered all over the world persist in resistance, pray persistently, and hope that freedom and democracy will last forever, and that God’s children will be able to build a new heaven and new earth with dignity!” he said.

The same day Zen issued his tweets, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher met his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Wang Yi, State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, on the margins of a Security Conference taking place in Munich.

According to a Vatican statement, during the meeting, which marks the first time the foreign ministers from China and the Vatican have met in more than 50 years, the two discussed positive developments in their relations, including the 2018 agreement on the appointment of bishops.

Both Gallagher and Wang voiced a desire to “continue institutional dialogue on a bilateral level to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people.” Appreciation was also voiced for efforts being made to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has much of China on edge.

Efforts to promote international cooperation and peace, as well as intercultural dialogue and human rights, were also discussed.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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