Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cardinal Zen and the “obligation” to defend civil and religious rights in China

22 September, 2006
Cardinal Zen and the “obligation” to defend civil and religious rights in China

Thanks to its freedom, the Church in Hong Kong has found itself obliged to take sides even on political matters in the former colony where an alliance exists between rich capitalists and Beijing. A look at the school and family reunification questions.

Siena (AsiaNews) - Defending civil and political rights in Hong Kong and religious freedom of Christians in mainland China: it has been the political choices of the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing that "forced" the Catholic Church in Hong Kong to take up the cause of rights. This was explained by the Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun in his talk at the third edition of "Days of historical thought", organized by the Rome-based Liberal Foundation. The topic of this year's conference is "China and Freedom. A world power against human rights: but what is the West doing?" Also taking part in meetings, which are currently being held in Siena, Italy, are André Glucksmann, Rino Fisichella, Ferdinando Adornato, Renzo Foa, Bernardo Cervellera (director of AsiaNews), and Roberto de Mattei. Events also include the awarding of the Bellaveglia Prize which will go to Wei Jingsheng, president of the Transoceanic Coalition for Chinese Democracy (laudatio by Aldo Forbice).

In his presentation, Cardinal Zen began by affirming that, in history, Christianity overturned the distinction dear to Greco-Roman culture between men born to think and destined to dominate, and other, slaves, born to serve the former. "In China, too," he added, "we lived for centuries under the absolute power of emperors, who had the right of life and death over their subjects. Everyone was convinced that this too was the will of God."

"But the true God revealed himself to be very different. He made man in his own image. He does not tolerate slavery, he came to serve those he created." Once it arrived in China, Christianity urged Chinese intellectuals to understand "the need for democracy for building a strong nation, but many thought they saw salvation exclusively in scientific-technical progress, tinged with atheism. Contrary to what could have been predicted, the political situation led China, an agricultural nation, into the arms of dialectical materialism. In short, it seemed that there was no other choice but atheism, whether the right or left-winged kind, in any case both post-Christian. Many Chinese, before having had occasion to encounter Christianity, had known post-Christian atheism. "Luckily, this is not the whole story. The God of Christians did not go on vacation and his followers, missionaries of all nationalities came to bring true Christianity to the Chinese."

Meanwhile, "as the communist storm raged in China, ignored by the rest of the world, and while the Party arrogated everyone's rights, in Hong Kong, a population which was also Chinese lived peacefully in the shadow of the British colonial regime. These were people who had fled from China and who, with their hard work along with the administrative experience of colonial officials, made this city become the Pearl of the Orient. The Church had a relevant role in this happy story. Missionaries expelled from China stopped here to serve refugees, providing the education and social services that the government was not yet able to sufficiently provide. Every one enjoyed full freedom, even if, being a colonial regime, no one dreamed of obtaining democracy. But at a certain point, something unthinkable, something absurd happened: while other nations were freeing themselves of Communism, Hong Kong was to fall peacefully under Communist domination."

But, "the China of 1997 is under Communist dictatorship. To alleviate the fears of the population and capital investors in Hong Kong, Deng Xiao Peng invented the magic system, "one country, two systems": Hong Kong can keep its capitalist system despite becoming an integral part of the Popular Republic of China."

"The last British governor, Chris Pattern, a practicing Catholic, strove to put into place an almost democratic structure, but it is too late. At the fatal hour, July 1, 1997, that structure was quickly dismantled and power was put into the hands of a group of people friendly to Beijing. Thus, a strange alliance was set up between powers in Beijing and rich capitalists in Hong Kong."

"Looking back over these almost ten years since the turnover, a new culture has formed: one that adores the strong and oppresses the weak. Instead of rule of law, there is "rule by law": laws upon laws which impair the human rights of citizens so as to keep them under control. Did all this need to be accepted passively? There are those who accuse the Church of having been in alliance with the colonial regime and of having automatically become an opponent of the current government. There is nothing more untrue. The truth is that the colonial government, though not democratic, was controlled by a democracy in its homeland, and though it was strictly non-confessional, it represented a nation of Christian culture. Collaboration was natural given shared interests, but there was no question of favouritism on the part of the government nor enslavement on the part of the Church. After the turnover of July 1, 1997, a litany of injustices perpetrated or attempted by the government against the population forced the Church to come out in favour of the weak, to be the voice for those who were voiceless. It was not a systematic opposition, and there was certainly no segret agenda. The litany of injustices would be very long, but I shall concentrate on the following cases:

1) immediately after July 1, 1997, the provisional government abolished certain laws in favour of labourers which had been passed shortly prior to July 1, 1997;

2) it instead revived certain laws restrictive of civil freedoms which long before had fallen into disuse and had been abolished just before the turnover (e.g. the right to assembly, to protest);

3) the government restricted the right to family reunification, that is the right of children of residents of Hong Kong, born on the continent, to live in Hong Kong, a right recognized by international conventions and which was also clearly written into the Basic Law, and had been upheld by the court of last appeal; but the government obtained that the permanent committee of the People's Congress give an opposite interpretation to the law so as to deny a right already recognized by the Supreme Court;

4) hundreds of youngsters lacking an identity card (holders only of a temporary permit of stay which however lasts three or four years), are denied the right to go to school; this offends not only their right to learn, but it also causes them profound psychological suffering as they feel abandoned by society;

5) the Fa-lung-kung group, which has been declared an "evil sect" in China, risked being declared so also in Hong Kong;

6) Article 23 of the Basic Law prescribed that Hong Kong must pass its own anti-subversion laws, in other words a matter of national security. No one denies the need for such laws, but the bill drafted by the government was so badly written that it threatened various fundamental human rights. It was asked that everyone be given the chance to participate in discussions on that proposal, but the government did not accept the request and forced it through the Legislative Council. The public expressed its indignation in a peaceful march of 500,000 people and, in the end, the government had to withdraw the bill;

7) faking a series of consultations, the government passed a new education law in 2004 which will enter into full effect in 2010. This law denies us, the Catholic Church and also Protestant Churches, the authority to run our schools.

In all these cases, we associated ourselves with the population to oppose injustices, at times putting ourselves at the head of the initiative (as in cases 3, 4, 6, 7); at times, we were able to block injustice (as in cases 4 and 6), other times we had to face defeat (as in cases 3 and 7, but in case 7, which regards the new education law, we noticed that it contradicts the Basic Law, and so we are suing the government, the case will be discussed in court shortly). In some cases, we were with the majority of the population (cases 4 and 6), other times we were part of a minority group (as in case 3), because the government was able to arouse collective selfishness. Then, in case 7, even our own people, that is people in the Church who are engaged in teaching, did not immediately recognize the serious danger of the new law and we thus lost time for fighting it. There are even those -- including some ecclesiastics -- who think that all these interventions by the Church amount to political action and therefore are not in accordance with its mission."

"Among human rights," the Cardinal went on to say, "religious freedom certainly takes first places. In this regard, as far as the strict sense of exercising our faith is concerned, we have nothing to complain about in Hong Kong. But, across the border between Hong Kong and the rest of China, it is entirely a different story. Religious freedom, which is constitutionally guaranteed, is practically administered by government officials who are convinced followers of atheism. Let us hope that, the next time the Holy See and Beijing negotiate, an agreement is reached that truly guarantees religious freedom to our brothers in China, but in the meantime we must lament not only the persecution inflicted on Catholics of the so-called underground Church, but also the continuous harassment against the official Church. We in Hong Kong have been called to respect the Basic Law which in continental China prohibits any interference in Church matters. But we belong to the same family: how can we remain silent when we see our brothers' rights constantly and brazenly crushed? It is true that it is up to our brothers to defend their own religious freedom, and they do so with much constance and tenacity. But our spiritual support is also of great help. I am happy that in certain occasions I was able to say that which they want to say but cannot, as in the case of the anti-canonization campaign of 2000 and in the recent illegitimate ordinations of bishops."

And in terms of his knowledge of Chinese reality, it seems to be the intention of Cardinal Zen, who hopes to take advantage of his stay in Italy to see the Pope, to ask Benedict XVI to lessen his load as the head of the diocese of Hong Kong so as to have more time available to better carry out a role as the Holy See's counsellor for Chinese affairs.

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