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Hong Kong Bishop Leads Protest Against Controversial Law - 2003-07-07

Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa is delaying plans to implement strict new security laws, due to intense popular protest. Among those leading the fight against the security act was Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen. The politically outspoken bishop sees the law as a threat to Hong Kong's freedoms, which, he said, could make the Chinese territory as restrictive as the communist mainland.

Looking serenely out from behind a pair of glasses, 71-year-old Bishop Joseph Zen does not appear to be the kind of person who would merit a place on Beijing's list of national threats. But since taking over the Hong Kong Roman Catholic diocese last year, Bishop Zen has made a name for himself as one of the most outspoken advocates for religious freedom in China.

The Roman Catholic Church has been forced underground in mainland China by the communist government. It was replaced by an official, state-sanctioned church, which answers to a government-supervised religious panel, rather than to the Vatican. Bishop Zen said this is not acceptable.

"You may see the churches open and the choir singing wonderfully, but that is not freedom of religion, that is freedom of worship," he said.

Born in Shanghai, Bishop Zen was once a frequent visitor to mainland China. Throughout the early 1990s, the bishop taught theology and philosophy at official seminaries there. He said it was a time of increased freedom for Catholic officials, as the government turned a blind eye to bishops on the mainland seeking to forge links between the Vatican and the state-sanctioned church.

"Since the '80s, little by little, all those bishops in the official church had a chance to communicate with Rome, and they asked the Holy Father to forgive them and to recognize them as legitimate bishops," he said.

The move was seen as a major breakthrough, since previously, only priests from the underground church had ties with the Holy See. But since Bishop Zen's ordination, just months before Hong Kong's handover to Chinese rule, he has seen hopes for a free church all but dashed.

While the Chinese government previously confined its arrests to the pro-Vatican underground church, Bishop Zen said even the official church is now feeling the heat. "The government is very nervous, because too many bishops have already been recognized by Rome, so they probably tomorrow may be tired of this situation and may persecute [the Church] even more harshly," he said.

Amid this increased tension came the Hong Kong government's announcement of plans for a strict new law to maintain the territory's security.

Under the original legislation, the government could ban groups outlawed on the mainland. Bishop Zen said that could have extended to the Roman Catholic Church, but his main concern is protecting freedom of belief in general.

The bishop vigorously defends what he sees as the main target of the law: the semi-religious movement known as the Falun Gong, which Beijing outlawed and branded as a cult in 1999. Falun Gong is peaceful, he said, and should not be banned because its chapter in mainland China has offended government leaders.

As leader of 250,000 Hong Kong Catholics, and another 150,000 Catholic guest workers from the Philippines, Bishop Zen was not about to take the planned security law sitting down.

July 1, a half-million Hong Kong residents marched in the streets to express their anger over what they saw as the law's threat to their civil liberties.

Among those leading the day-long march was Bishop Zen. He said, "Together with the Protestants, we had a prayer meeting, and then we encouraged all the faithful to join the procession. And they very patiently joined the procession, you know it was a very hot day and they had to wait a long time, because it was so huge a crowd … and so we Catholics were an important part in all this."

Shocked by the tremendous protest, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announced that he will amend the security laws to remove controversial provisions, including one that would see groups banned on the mainland banned in Hong Kong. He then bowed to public pressure and delayed this week's planned passage in the legislature, so there can be more consulting on the proposed laws.