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ROME – As the trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen approaches in Hong Kong, a fellow cardinal has weighed in, praising Zen as both an authentically Chinese man and a credible witness to Christ.
In an open letter published Sept. 23 in Italian newspaper Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, an expert in Chinese affairs, said Zen “is a man of God; at times intemperate, but submissive to the love of Christ.”
“He is an authentic Chinese. No one among those I have known, can, I say, be truly as loyal as he is,” Filoni said, voicing his conviction that as the trial unfolds, “Cardinal Zen will not be condemned.”
“Hong Kong, China, and the church have in him a devoted son not to be ashamed of. This is a testimony to the truth,” he said.
Zen, 90, and five others were arrested in May under a Beijing-imposed national security law for allegedly colluding with foreign forces. They face charges of sedition.
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 at one point 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.
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, it was postponed because the presiding judge, Permanent Magistrate Ada Yim Shun-yee, contracted COVID-19.
According to local media, the trial is now set to begin Sept. 26.
Filoni, 76, is currently the Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and the former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
After his ordination to the priesthood in 1970, he worked as an official in Vatican embassies to Sri Lanka, Iran, Brazil, and the Philippines, where he was named ambassador in 2006, after a five-year stint serving as nuncio to Iraq and Jordan.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II sent Filoni to Hong Kong – which was then under British control – to study the situation of the church in China. It was there he met Zen.
In 2018, when Pope Francis struck a provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, Zen called the deal a “sellout” of China’s persecuted Christians and the result of “lies” fed to the pope by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
In his letter, Filoni – one of the few Catholic prelates so far to speak out about the Zen trial – pointed to biblical figures who died for speaking the truth, including John the Baptist and Jesus himself.
“In these days another trial is unfolding — in Hong Kong. A city that I loved very much for having lived there for over eight years,” he said, recalling how when he first met Zen, the Chinese prelate was serving as provincial of the Salesians.
Zen, Filoni said, was “a Chinese all in one piece. Very intelligent, sharp, with a captivating smile.”
At the time, Zen was also an esteemed professor of philosophy and ethics, and he spoke Italian perfectly and understood European culture well, having attended schools in Europe as a young man. However, he never forgot his own culture, and “in reality he remained Chinese,” Filoni said.
Filoni described Zen as a man who lives “the encounter between two cultures,” and who struck him as “the prototype of an interculturality” reminiscent of ancient Chinese thinkers such as Xu Guangqi, or the Jesuit Bishop of Shanghai, Aloysius Jin Luxian.
Shanghai was once “a city of martyrs,” he said, noting that many members of Zen’s own family were victims of “the Nazi-style occupation of the Japanese,” and were forced to flee, leaving behind all of their possessions.
“The young Zen has never forgotten that experience and drew from it coherence of character and lifestyle; and then a great love for freedom and justice,” he said. Calling Shanghai also a place of heroes, Filoni said, “Cardinal Zen is one of the last followers of those families.”
Zen, he said, “looked ahead and did not enter into judgment towards people: It was his philosophy of life; political systems – he said – can be judged, and his thought about them was clear, but people cannot; the judgment is sent back to God who knows the hearts of men.”
Zen’s respect and support for the human person have always been “the pillar of his human and priestly vision,” Filoni said. “It is up to now, even if he is brought to trial in these days.”
“Moral and ideal integrity were considered to be of the highest level when John Paul II named him bishop and Benedict XVI created him cardinal,” he said, noting that some people might consider Zen “a bit angular in character.”
“And who would not be so in the face of injustices and the demand for freedom that every authentic political and civil system should defend?” he asked, voicing his support for Zen and his confidence in the trial’s outcome.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen