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An interview with Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop of Hong Kong. The cardinal discusses the Chinese Church, the Beijing government and the recent bishops’ synod.
BY EDWARD PENTINROME CORRESPONDENT
Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has for many years tried to make good use of his position as
bishop of Hong Kong to be an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and its
record on religious freedom and human rights. During a break from last month’s
Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, he spoke about the situation in China, the
effects of the Olympic Games, life in Hong Kong, the recent synod, and why he
sees it as his mission to be a thorn in the side of the Beijing government.
Your Eminence, what were the
most interesting and important parts of the synod, in your view?
It was a very pastoral theme. For
sure, there are very important theological foundations of the biblical
apostolate, but we put emphasis on the pastoral, that means, on the knowledge
of living out the holy Scripture and spreading the practice of reading holy
Scripture to all the faithful — and even having it translated into many
languages to help those who don’t know other languages in the world.
The most interesting aspect of the
synod was the exchange of experience from all parts of the world. We know there
are many initiatives going on everywhere, and so many people are really engaged
in this apostolate. So maybe it’s still a very long-term plan, but it’s moving
— and moving steadily.
What insights did you gain at
the synod which helped you in the situation facing Catholics in China?
China, the revealed word of God doesn’t seem to have reached too many people.
Those who have received the holy Scripture by faith are still few, and so maybe
we have to understand the word of God in a more comprehensive sense, including
the word of God in creation, the marvels of the universe, the creation of human
conscience. That is also the word of God.
Hong Kong, we can say the Bible is well-known to many people because, in our
education system, which stems from our British regime, it was even a subject
for public examination. So we have many Catholic schools, also Protestant
schools, and almost half of the student population are in Christian schools. So
they all have some contact with the Bible. But it’s one thing to know the Bible
like any other kind of knowledge, and another to accept it, to live it. So I
think we still have much work to do on that point, even for our own Catholics,
because the rich treasure in the word of God is still to be discovered.
Certainly, the Church, in its liturgical reform, has presented a much richer
repertoire of readings. But the priest should prepare better homilies, sermons,
to help people to understand the word of God.
Turning to the situation in
China as a whole, have you seen much positive change since the Beijing Olympics
sorry to say we see no change at all. They succeeded in making a very good show
of the Olympic Games. They got a lot of medals, and that was very good. And we
are happy that nothing happened, but we don’t see any benefit in terms of
religious freedom, or even a little step in the direction of more democracy.
were so many restrictions, even during the Games, especially among the
so-called underground community of the Church. So I’m sorry to say we cannot
see any changes resulting from the Games.
Is there perhaps a fear that now
that the Olympics are a fading memory and the world’s eyes are no longer on
China as they were that some restrictions may come back?
Yes, that fear may be justified, but
we hope it may not be realized because the highest authorities seem to have
some intention of improvement. So let’s hope. Still we try to be optimistic.
In August, the Bishop of
Beijing, Joseph Li Shan [of the official state-run Chinese Church], said he
very much hoped the Pope would visit China and issued an invitation. Is such a
visit possible in your view?
I don’t think that’s anything
serious; it’s just the bishop of Beijing, and he hasn’t the authority to make
such a decision. It’s just a very simple desire.
He may be expressing a desire, but
it’s really of no importance. He has no authority to make such an invitation.
The government would place no importance on his wishes.
Are you optimistic of such a
Oh no, and at this moment, I would
discourage the Pope from going to China, because there is no real condition for
The visit of the Pope would simply
be manipulated, as they do with all the visits of the cardinals. I’m
discouraging all the cardinals from going to China.
A senior Chinese Communist Party
official [Zhou Tianyong] recently predicted that China will finish its
political and institutional reforms and be a working democracy by 2020. Do you
think that’s feasible?
I’m sorry to say in China everything
is unpredictable. We may have a democracy in two years; we may have to wait for
Do you think the current
financial crisis could possibly help prospects for religious freedom in the
No. It’s certainly something which
concerns everybody, because everybody is connected with everybody else in the
world economy: You insure me, and you are insured by somebody else — the whole
world is connected. I know that China’s huge reserve is in American dollars, so
they must be affected also by the global crisis.
greater democracy help the cause of religious freedom in the country?
two things go together because they’re both about respect for the human person.
Democracy means respect for the human person, and so then you should respect
his conscience and religious belief. I would wish, first of all, for a little
more democracy in the [Communist] Party, because it seems there is no democracy
in the party; so there is no progress.
comes from our authorities but, then again, we have reason to suspect that
although sometimes there may be good intentions at a high level, further down
people are concerned about their own interests, and they want to disrupt any
change, any improvement.
imprisonments of members of the unofficial Church increased in recent weeks and
more and not less. It’s just as usual, and that’s bad enough.
Do you see
greater collaboration, a greater mingling, between the “underground” and
two groups simply cannot do anything with each other under such government
control. They have no problem among themselves. It’s the government that is controlling
and punishing one or the other, so the problem is with the government.
not among the two communities. There is certainly a division between the two
communities, but it all owes itself to the policy of the government.
of Hong Kong, you’ve had quite a few struggles with the Chinese authorities
over the years.
yes. When I became bishop, the situation was completely new, because as bishop
of Hong Kong, we [those who serve in this role] are supposed to have a higher
degree of autonomy, even after ’97 [the year the British handed Hong Kong over
I think we have to use this freedom to speak out, not only for ourselves in
Hong Kong, but also for the Church in China. And that, certainly, displeases
the regime, because in the Communist Party any criticism cannot be tolerated.
Anyone who criticises is its enemy.
Edward Pentin writes