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Hong Kong Cardinal-Designate May Renew Vatican-China Relations

The Vatican’s appointment of Hong Kong Bishop as a cardinal is expected to open new ways to solve the long-standing dispute between China and Vatican.
( [email protected] ) Feb 23, 2006 12:17 PM EST

The Vatican’s appointment of Hong Kong Bishop as a cardinal is expected to open new ways to solve the long-standing dispute between China and Vatican.

The pope Benedict XVI announced the new 15 cardinals after the public audience on Wednesday, before a crowd of tourists and pilgrims at the Vatican. Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun from the Diocese of Hong Kong is on the list, according to New York Times.

As an outspoken religious figure in Hong Kong, Bishop Zen is known for his willingness and boldness to challenge the Chinese Communist Party on many issues, particularly religious freedom, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. In addition, he has played a key role in leading Hong Kong Christian groups to participate in democracy movement.

Benedict XVI has pledged to recover the tie between the Vatican and China since he became pope in April 2005. Under the existing religious law in China, Catholic churches that are loyal to the pope are not recognized by the government and are subjected to persecution. Through rebuilding the dialogue, the pope attempts to bring back underground Catholics under the Vatican’s wing and demand more religious freedom in China. However, it has remained in deadlock.

Therefore, many suggested the selection of Hong Kong cardinal is very strategic. Fr Jim Mulroney, deputy editor in chief of the Hong Kong diocesan newspaper, the Sunday Examiner said, "There is speculation that he will serve as a bridge between the Vatican and Beijing."

"The Church in China, including Hong Kong, is very important to the church as a whole, and it (naming Bishop Zen a cardinal) is a gesture of goodwill and respect to the Chinese people," he added.

Zen also agreed that "his elevation signals the pope's focus on China," according to the Associated Press (AP). "The pope really cares about China. He didn't name a lot of cardinals this time. A lot of dioceses that typically get appointments didn't. This shows his priority for China," Zen said.

Upon his appointment, Zen reflected on the lack of religious freedom in China and showed his hope to improve the situation.

"Chinese churches are under a special situation. The Chinese government has the control of the churches and are very strict about what freedom they can have. So the situation is not so simple. We must do this step by step," he said to Agence France Presse (AFP) reporters, adding that his new post would give him the opportunity to speak with Chinese leaders.

A China expert in Rome and founder of the Vatican-affiliated news agency AsiaNews Rev. Bernardo Cervellera commented, "China should see this nomination of Monsignor Zen as an opportunity to revise their view on freedom of religion."

The Hong Kong office of China's Foreign Ministry has not yet responded to the nomination of Zen as cardinal.

The 74-year-old Shanghai-born bishop Zen joined the flood of refugees into Hong Kong. He was ordained in Turin, Italy, in 1961, and after seminarian studies in Rome, he returned to Hong Kong in 1964 with a PhD. Then he became a lecturer in philosophy and theology at seminarian schools for many years before he served as guest professor for seven years at officially-sanctioned, or "patriotic," church seminaries in Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Wuhan, Shenyang and Shijiazhuang.

A church source says Zen has begun making close contact with China's underground church during the time in China. In September 2002, Zen- a devoted advocate of religious freedom- became the 6th bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong till now.