Listen to this story:

ROME – On Tuesday, Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong, made a court appearance and pled not guilty to charges that led to his arrest earlier this month, saying in a Mass later in the day that Christians must “steel themselves” for defending the faith.

Zen, 90, and three other trustees of the defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund were detained between May 10 and 11 on charges that they had violated Hong Kong’s new national security law and were guilty of “collusion” with foreign forces – something the security law, imposed by Beijing in the summer of 2020, strictly prohibits.

The fund was shut down last year after coming under fire from civil authorities in Hong Kong.

Zen, who was released on bail, appeared at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong Tuesday, along with five others, and was charged with failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which was established to provide financial assistance to those participating in anti-government protests in 2019.

Each of the defendants, including Zen, pleaded not guilty to the charges, and their lawyers questioned whether, as a charity, the fund was in fact required to register under the territory’s Societies Ordinance, which regulates both incorporated and non-incorporated associations of persons and requires registrations.

Tuesday’s hearing marked the beginning of what will likely be a lengthy legal battle. The actual trial for the accused will begin Sept. 19, and according to AsiaNews, without indictments for threats to national security, the defendants could face a maximum fine of $1,750 each.

One of the activists charged, Cyd Ho, is already behind bars for his participation in an unauthorized demonstration. Several other activists, including Catholic business and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, have faced similar charges since the security law was enacted.

Italian, German, French, and Swedish diplomats attended Tuesday’s hearing, signaling the keen interest of western nations in the legal proceedings against Zen and developments related to the national security law, which has been condemned by many western leaders as a draconian and oppressive measure that has erased freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong when it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

In light of the increased crackdown on so-called dissidents who belong to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the territory’s diocese announced Tuesday that it would be canceling the traditional Masses commemorating the Tiananmen square massacre that took place June 4, 1989, due to fears they might violate the national security law.

The Hong Kong diocese, now led by Jesuit Bishop Stephen Chow, issued a statement Tuesday following Zen’s court appearance saying they “will closely monitor the development of the incident.”

“Cardinal Zen is always in our prayers, and we invite all to pray for the church,” the statement said.

Tuesday evening, after his hearing, Zen celebrated Mass for the feast of Mary, Help of Christians and Our Lady of Sheshan at Holy Cross Church in Sai Wan Ho. Cardinal John Tong, also retired bishop of Hong Kong, celebrated a separate Mass marking the same feast at a different parish.

According to UCA News, Zen did not mention his case during the Mass, but dedicated the liturgy specifically to churches in China, where believers are still split between a so-called “underground” church resistant to the government, and a state-sanctioned church belonging to the Chinese Communist Party’s Patriotic Catholic Association.

In his remarks at Mass, Zen reportedly issued fresh criticism of a 2018 deal between the Vatican and Beijing authorities on the appointment of bishops, which was renewed in 2020, saying the agreement was “unwise,” despite being made with “good intention.”

“There is an urge to unify those above the ground and those underground, but it seems that time is not ripe yet,” he said, and asked the roughly 300 Massgoers to pray for “our brothers and sisters who cannot attend the Mass today because they are not free.”

Implying that there may be more difficult times ahead, Zen said that “martyrdom is normal in our church … We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”

Zen’s fresh criticism of the Vatican-China deal is of no surprise, as he has been among the most the most vocal critics since the announcement of the agreement was made, at times implying that the Vatican is ignorant and calling top officials overseeing the deal, including Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, liars.

After Zen’s arrest, Parolin voiced concern that the act could jeopardize the Vatican’s deal with China and that it could threaten the small window of opportunity it provides for engagement with Chinese Communist officials, saying, “the most concrete hope is that initiatives such as this one will not complicate the already complex and not simple path of dialogue.”

Critics, including Zen, have long argued that the deal is being used by Chinese officials to justify their crackdown on churches and religious practice, and that members of the underground hierarchy are still being targeted.

One of those is Vatican-approved Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang, who according to UCA News was arrested over a year ago for violating the country’s regulations on religious affairs and remains in detention at an undisclosed location.

Zhang was arrested May 21, 2021, the day after a police raid on a Catholic seminary in his diocese resulted in 10 priests and seminarians being arrested and accused of violating China’s religious affairs regulations.

After reportedly being subjected to “political lessons” while in detention, the priests and seminarians were released, but Zhang, 63, remains in custody and his whereabouts are unknown.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the principal magistrate ordered all defendants to return to court Aug. 9 for a pre-trial review, with the actual five-day trial taking place Sept. 19-23.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen