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ROME – While life in the Eternal City is still fairly quiet, with many locals off to the beach to escape sweltering temperatures during the month of August, there is plenty happening in other parts of the world.
From Kazakhstan to Hong Kong, Lebanon, and Iraq, things are happening that are of relevance not only to those churches, but to the broader international Catholic community.
In Hong Kong, the dates have officially been set for the trial involving Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former bishop of Hong Kong, and several other defendants on charges of failing to properly register a humanitarian fund that supported the pro-democracy movement in the city.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press, on Tuesday Principal Magistrate Ada Yim presided over a pre-trial review hearing at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court for the case involving Zen.
The trial will take place Sept. 19-23 and is expected to involve legal debates over the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance and whether the fund was formally a society under that edict.
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.
Zen, who plead not guilty at a hearing in May, was charged along with five others with failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which was established to provide financial assistance to those participating in anti-government protests in 2019.
Charges were levied despite the fact that the fund was shut down last year after coming under fire from civil authorities in Hong Kong.
In the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, preparations are underway for Pope Francis’s visit next month.
He’ll be in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan Sept. 13-15 for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, the first edition of which was held in September 2003, just two years after the devastating World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s expected that the pope, while in Kazakhstan, will meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for a highly charged conversation given their differences over the war in Ukraine.
Yet in addition to his obligations for the congress and a potential meeting with Kirill, Pope Francis is also scheduled to celebrate a public Mass for Catholics and will meet with the country’s civil authorities. He will also meet with bishops, priests, and religious in the country, and is slated to have a private conversation with members of the local Jesuit community.
Speaking to the Fides News agency, Yevgeniy Zinkovskiy, auxiliary bishop of Karaganda and first native prelate of Kazakhstan, said excitement is already brewing among locals, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“What pleases us the most is the fact that even the non-Catholic citizens of the country received the news of the planned trip of the Holy Father with great enthusiasm,” Zinkovskiy said, saying civil authorities in Karaganda have offered to help the church organize transport to Nur-Sultan for those who wish to attend papal events.
Another “positive sign” about the upcoming visit, he said, is that journalists are already asking random people on the street about it, “and the answer is that they are all very happy that such an important man of God visits the Kazakh people.”
Zinkovskiy said he had hoped the pope would also be able to travel to Karaganda, which is roughly 143 miles southeast of Nur-Sultan, but that this was not possible given the pope’s ongoing knee condition.
Despite needing to travel to see the pope, Catholics in Karaganda “are very happy that he will come to our country and celebrate a Mass for all of God’s people,” Zinkovskiy said. “We invite everyone to take part in the meeting and we are waiting for our pope to tell us what we can do for the church and the local society.”
In the troubled nation of Lebanon, the Vatican’s outgoing envoy to the country, Maltese Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, who has been appointed as the Vatican’s nuncio to Mexico, visited the Maronite League for an official farewell visit.
According to Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA), Spiteri said a papal visit to the country is still on the table.
“This visit in on the Pope’s agenda, and he will announce its date when the Vatican departments see that the visit is beneficial for Lebanon,” he said.
Pope Francis postponed a planned visit to Lebanon in June due to ongoing health problems related to his knee. For months, the pope has suffered from a painful osteoarthritis of his right knee, which has at times confined him to a wheelchair or forced him to walk with a cane.
Although the pope’s visit to Lebanon was never officially announced, Lebanese government ministers had spoken openly about the visit and the importance it would hold for a country crippled by a worsening economic and political crisis.
In his visit to the Maronite League, Spiteri said the Holy See is in constant contact with various states regarding Lebanon’s internal crisis, and he stressed the Vatican’s interest in Lebanon’s stability and wellbeing.
“The Vatican still counts on Lebanon’s pluralist message, and I am upbeat that the Lebanese will be able to reach a new formula that saves their distinguished pluralist system,” he said, according to NNA.
In terms of the international situation and Lebanon’s upcoming presidential elections, Spiteri offered his support, saying, “nothing prevents the state that successfully completed the parliamentary polls from conducting the presidential elections according to the constitutional principles.”
Spiteri also backed Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Béchara Raï’s frequent calls for Lebanon’s neutrality, saying, this active neutrality “is being discussed with the concerned states; the term may change but the result is the same.”
Earlier this week, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that preparations are underway for the third edition of a high-profile meeting on interfaith dialogue, which will take place at the end of October in collaboration with the religious endowments’ offices in Iraq; namely the Shiite, Sunni, Christian, Mandaean, and Yazidi endowments.
The meeting, which will draw participation not only from the various religious endowments of Iraq but also representatives of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is the latest effort by the Iraqi government to promote tolerance and dialogue following Pope Francis’s March 5-8 visit to the country last year.
While in Iraq last spring, the pope issued various calls for peace, dialogue, tolerance, and respectful coexistence, and he also held a key meeting with top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani.
After the meeting, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi announced the creation of a day of tolerance and coexistence to be held annually on March 6, the day the meeting between Francis and al-Sistani took place.
On Monday, Undersecretary of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs Safia Taleb al-Suhail met with the Holy See’s nuncio to Iraq, Slovenian Archbishop Mitja Leskovar.
Speaking to Iraqi news site Al-Monitor, al-Suhail said Mustafa and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are coordinating with the Vatican to prepare for the Interfaith Dialogue meeting, which will be held in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
The meeting, she said, will be held “in cooperation and coordination with the Vatican and a number of countries and international institutions with the aim of promoting peace, international cooperation and coexistence, which were among the outcomes of the Baghdad conference last year.”
Titled “Proper Education for New Generations: Path to Peace and Comprehensive Development,” the meeting will focus on how to “prepare teachers to perform their educational peacemaking mission all the while reviewing school curricula to promote a culture of coexistence,” said Al-Suhail.
“The Iraqi state is keen to honor its obligations related to the respect of human rights and democracy, as stipulated by the Iraqi Constitution, including the rights of cultural and religious minorities and other basic freedoms,” she said, stressing that Iraq is also committed to implementing the “recommendations and outcomes of the visit of His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff to Iraq.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen