ROME – Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party, has said a new security law puts the city’s autonomy at risk, and condemned the Vatican’s silence on the issue as political pandering with disregard to the faith.

“We are worried, we are very worried,” Zen told Crux, referring to the new security law Beijing is set to implement in Hong Kong. “We need a miracle; we need a miracle from heaven.”

Zen, 88, served as Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002-2009.

For a year Hong Kong has been the site of massive pro-democracy demonstrations, which at times have turned violent, due to a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. Though the bill was eventually withdrawn, the protests – described by many Chinese media outlets as “terrorism” – continued, stopping only with the eruption of the coronavirus earlier this year.

Tensions have spiked again over a national security resolution for Hong Kong adopted by Beijing May 31, which bans treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism.

Pro-democracy activists who take issue with the bill have been leading demonstrations since it was first announced several weeks ago, despite lingering restrictions due to the coronavirus. Several protestors, most of whom are youth, have been arrested.

When Hong Kong was transferred to China from Britain in 1997, it was allowed to keep most of its civil liberties – including freedom of speech and religion – under the “one country, two systems” policy.

Noting that a previous security measure proposed in 2003 was eventually withdrawn after large-scale protests, Zen said many believe that the new law “is going to be much worse.”

“Surely it will damage our autonomy,” he said, noting that many details about the law are still unknown. “For example, about the implementation of that law, which organism is going to do that, and whether the offenders would be judged in Hong Kong, by Hong Kong courts, or to be brought to China.”

“All these things make us very worried,” the cardinal said. “It seems that this is going to destroy completely what they promised to Hong Kong in terms of autonomy.”

Noting that Hong Kong is also an important international financial hub, he said investors are also concerned about the implications of the new law, and that the Chinese Communist Party itself is likely divided about the law.

Zen voiced hope that moderate members of the Communist Party would intervene, advising leaders to pay heed to the criticism coming from the international community, and relax the security bill. However, the likelihood that this will happen, he said, is small.

“We don’t have much influence on Beijing, they don’t listen to us. They consider us as the enemy, that’s the trouble,” he said. “I think really, we are expecting something terrible.”

Zen has been a vocal opponent of the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Holy See’s provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, the details of which have yet to be made public. Now he is criticizing the Vatican’s silence on the new security law and the protests in Hong Kong.

“I’m sorry to say that we have nothing to expect from the Vatican. In these past few years, they have never said anything to reproach China for their persecution,” he said, saying they have “surrendered the Church to the Chinese authority.”

“In Hong Kong, in all this time of turmoil, with so many young people suffering the brutality of the police, not a word from the Vatican,” he said, insisting the Vatican is “always trying to please the Chinese government.” He said the policy is “foolish, because the Communists, they never grant anything, they just want to control.”

Zen said he believes that in time, Hong Kong will become like any other city in mainland China, and that it will lose its special status.

In terms of religious persecution and the loss of basic rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, he said that he does not expect these to be eliminated right away, but “surely little by little, our freedom will be eroded.”

Through its silence, the Vatican will have a hand in this, Zen said, noting that for over a year Hong Kong has been without a bishop, but has been led by an administrator following the sudden death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung in January 2019.

“That should be easy to find someone,” he added, explaining that there was a candidate, but the man ran afoul of the government during last year’s protests, when he spoke out in favor of “the rights of the people and to advise the government to be more moderate.”

Another candidate more favorable to Beijing is now being considered, but has yet to be appointed, Zen claimed, adding the failure to appoint the man is indicative that the Vatican is at some level aware that appointing a Beijing-approved bishop in Hong Kong “may not be good for the Church in this moment.”

“I don’t think that the choice of a bishop should be guided by these political reasons. So, we are worried,” the cardinal said, adding, “Maybe the Holy See is not following the criterion of faith, but is subject to political considerations, and that’s very dangerous for our diocese.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen