ROME – A highly-anticipated trial against Chinese Cardinal Joseph Zen and five other defendants has been delayed, but is expected to move forward this week in Hong Kong, initiating controversial proceedings that could end in heavy fines or jail time, and which has been widely criticized as an attack against democracy.

Zen, 90, and five others were arrested in May under a Beijing-imposed national security law for allegedly colluding with foreign forces.

Specifically, they are charged with failing to apply for local society registration for the now defunct 612 Humanitarian Fund between July 16, 2019, and Oct. 31, 2021. The fund, for which they all held leadership positions, provided financial and legal aid to pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets in 2019 to oppose a controversial bill allowing extradition to mainland China.

In addition to Zen, others on trial include Barrister Margaret Ng; Singer-Activist Denise Ho; Cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung; Ex-legislator Cyd Ho; and Activist Sze Ching-wee, the fund’s secretary general before it closed last October.

Each of the defendants pleaded not guilty after their arrest in May, and Zen himself was released on bail shortly after his May 11 arrest.

The trial was set to open Monday and close Friday, Sept. 23, however, according to AsiaNews, presiding judge Permanent Magistrate Ada Yim Shun-yee contracted COVID-19, and the opening of the trial has been pushed back for two days. The defense is expected to argue that the fund had a right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a quasi-mini constitution that has been in place in Hong Kong since the British returned the territory to China in 1997.

Hong Kong’s national security law, imposed by Beijing despite mass protests against it, went into effect June 30, 2020, and bans activities described as treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism. It also stipulates that whenever it deems it necessary, the Chinese Central government in Beijing can establish agencies to help Hong Kong fulfill its security requirements.

A semi-autonomous region granted certain freedoms the rest of China is not afforded as part of China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong was required to introduce security measures after the British returned the territory to China in 1997.

However, many pro-democracy activists and national leaders have criticized the law as interrupting freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it came back under Chinese control, with some voicing fear that articles in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which protects freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom, to assemble will be dismissed.

Given the defense’s strategy of invoking freedoms enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Zen’s trial is seen as a test-run for exactly what weight the law now has for Chinese authorities, and whether the rights prescribed in it will be respected.

Since the national security law went into effect, several high-profile pro-democracy activists have faced legal troubles, including Zen; Martin Lee, considered to be the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong; and Jimmy Lai, an outspoken media tycoon and democracy advocate who has been jailed since 2020 and faces his own trial in December.

Given his standing in the Catholic Church and his many outspoken criticisms of Beijing, Zen is the most high-profile personality to face legal troubles under the national security law, and his trial is seen not only as a direct assault on democracy, but also religious freedom.

Zen has had a lengthy ecclesial career. He took his first vows with the Salesians of Saint John Bosco in 1949, and was ordained a priest in the institute in 1961. He was appointed coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, and formally assumed the role of bishop in 2002, becoming the leader of Hong Kong’s vast Catholic community, which now numbers around 400,000.

He was given a red hat by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and retired as bishop of Hong Kong in 2009.

Yet throughout his retirement, Zen has grown increasingly critical of Beijing, which broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 and created its own Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), an initiative led by the Communist Party, and which has long been seen as a rival to Rome, appointing and ordaining bishops without the pope’s approval and arresting those who have resisted, pledging loyalty to Rome instead.

In 2018, under Pope Francis, the Holy See and China signed a secret provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, the terms of which have never formally been made public, but which are believed to allow the pope to select bishops from a group of candidates put forward by the Chinese.

As part of the deal, the pope also recognized seven bishops appointed by Beijing without his approval, lifting their excommunications with the goal of uniting mainland’s CPCA Catholics and the so-called “underground” Catholic community.

Zen has been vocally critical of the deal, saying the Vatican doesn’t really understand China and is “selling out” Catholics who have faced persecution for their loyalty to Rome. He has also called Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who has taken the lead on negotiations with China, “a liar,” saying the Vatican’s line on China is “sickening” and that Parolin had told “a series of lies with open eyes.”

The deal, which was renewed in 2020 for an additional two years, is currently up for renewal again. In a recent interview, Parolin said that despite the difficulties they still face with China, including the trial against Zen, the Vatican has “begun to walk on this path” toward another renewal of the deal.

“With many difficulties we must admit it, but we will continue to walk. I think there will be a long way to go but we have to be patient,” he said.

After Zen’s arrest in May, the Vatican released a one-line statement saying, “the Holy See has received the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”

Asked on his return flight from Kazakhstan whether he believed the trial against Zen constituted a violation of religious freedom, Pope Francis declined to respond directly, but rather said that it is “not easy to understand the Chinese mentality.”

“To understand China takes a century, and we won’t see a century,” he said, saying Zen is a man who “says what he thinks, and we see that there are some limitations there.”

However, Francis said he “respects” China and that the Holy See in its engagement with them has chosen “the path of dialogue.”

According to the Hong Kong Free Press, during a pre-trial review hearing at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts last month, Acting Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (Special Duties) Anthony Chau said the trail was expected to debate whether the 612 Fund was in fact a society under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance – which provides for the inclusion of the territory’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provisions as applied to local laws in Hong Kong – and whether the defendants in fact held office.

While the trial, which will be conducted in Chinese, was set to close Friday, with an additional two and a half days have been reserved for closing arguments, which will be made in English, but the delay will push it back a few days.

In an article published in the Mondo e Missione magazine, the official publication of his order, Father Gianni Criveller, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missionaries (PIME), said he met with Zen several weeks ago, and that Zen said he had “lost all the battles, but I am happy.”

Criveller said Zen told him about his arrest and court hearings, but also “about the good he does by visiting prisons,” which has long been a practice of the Chinese prelate.

“He meets people who live stories of inner transformation far from the spotlight, but no less extraordinary for that. Some of the imprisoned leaders live their stories in a spirit of faith and witness, willing to pay a high price for values they strongly believe in. Some even approach faith,” he said.

Reached by phone over the weekend, Zen declined a Crux request for comment on the trial.

This article has been updated with information pertaining to the delay in the start of Cardinal Joseph Zen’s trial. 

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen