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MUMBAI, India – One of Asia’s top Catholic cardinals said the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen is a cause of concern “about the situation for human rights and threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong.”

Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, issued a statement on May 14, three days after the authorities arrested Zen and accused him of violating the territory’s draconian security law, which was imposed on the former British colony by Beijing in 2020, after a series of pro-democracy protests in the territory. The cardinal has participated in a fund that is raising money for the defense of those accused under the security law.

Zen was released on bail the same day as his arrest after hours of questioning by police.

“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. 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?” Bo said in his statement.

Bo called on Catholics and the wider Christian community around the world to pray for Hong Kong and urged the international community to continue to monitor the situation and speak out for freedom and justice.

“Hong Kong used to be one of Asia’s freest and most open cities. Today, it has been transformed into a police state,” the Myanmar cardinal said.

“Freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, and academic freedom have all been dismantled. 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,” Bo continued.

The cardinal’s statement is one of the strongest to appear after Zen’s arrest, with the official Vatican statement only noting “concern” over the arrest, and that the Holy See was “following the development of the situation very closely.”

The Diocese of Hong Kong released a statement saying it was “extremely concerned about the condition and safety” of Zen, adding, “We have always upheld the rule of law. We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law.”

The Basic Law is the de facto constitution of Hong Kong, put in place after the 1997 transfer of the territory from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, guaranteeing the civil freedoms enjoyed under British rule, colloquially known as “one country, two systems.”

China has been accused of eroding these freedoms, especially over the past three years.

Bo said these conditions have led to a “growing self-censorship” among religious leaders in Hong Kong and accused “pro-Beijing media” in the territory of “propaganda attacks against the church.”

“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,” he said.

Bo noted that the church celebrates the World Day of Prayer for the Church in China and the Feast of Mary Help of Christians – in China, celebrated as Our Mother of Sheshan – on May 24.

“Last year I called for this to be turned into a Week of Prayer each year, and I was heartened when a group of lay Catholics around the world took up my invitation and established the Global Week of Prayer for China,” he said.

“This year I urge Christians of all traditions everywhere to pray for Hong Kong especially, and the church in China, as well as the Uyghurs, Tibetans and others facing persecution in China, during that Week of Prayer, and to pray especially for Cardinal Zen on May 24 itself as we seek the prayers of Mary Help of Christians. Where possible, churches might consider a votive Mass on this day,” the cardinal continued.

“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, and devote our prayers and efforts to showing solidarity with and support for them, in the hope that one day their freedoms will be restored,” Bo said.