The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s behind the Vatican’s silence on Hong Kong?

Pope Francis addresses devotees Wednesday during the weekly papal audience in Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican City. (Alessandro Di Meo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Cardinal Joseph Zen is the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

Hong Kongers don’t recognize our city anymore. It’s heartbreaking. Almost every night, we see young people — some very young — dressed in the “full gear” of black clothes and masks, taking to the streets with the now-famous cry of “Be Water.”

Who are they? “Rioters,” if you listen and watch the local media, most of which is controlled by people linked to Beijing. And it is true that protesters have recently crossed the red line of violence, throwing petrol bombs and setting fire near and inside buildings. As someone who has been outspoken on human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and China for decades, I caution them: Violence is dangerous and may damage your cause.

But these protesters are not rioters. These are our children, fighting for our democratic rights, who are under attack. And they are being let down by law enforcement, local authorities — and the Vatican.

Since protests broke out this summer, there have been more than 4,000 arrests, with hundreds brought to court. On Oct. 1 alone, the police fired 1,400 canisters of tear gas, some of which had expired, and more than 900 “non-lethal” bullets. On Nov. 11 they even fired live rounds at point-blank range. Police also indiscriminately stop and search youngsters dressed in black, arresting and beating them. Sometimes, local gangsters join in.

How sad it is to see our children beaten, humiliated, arrested and prosecuted. In the face of such injustice, several governments have spoken out, despite risks to their economic interests in China. But there has been a corner of resounding silence. In all these months of demonstrations, the Vatican has not uttered a word of criticism toward Beijing.

This is regrettable — but should not come as a surprise. The line followed by the Vatican in recent years when dealing with the threatening China giant has been appeasement at any cost.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, is the one who has in his hands the Chinese dossier. He clearly believes that such a position is necessary to open a new way for evangelization of the immense Chinese nation. I have strong doubts.

In 2018, China and the Vatican signed a provisional “secret” agreement on the appointment of bishops, which the Chinese government has sought to control. Why was it secret? Obviously, because it was a bad agreement. The agreement saw the church legitimize seven bishops appointed by China and previously excommunicated. Many — myself included — raised concerns about what this would do for the bishops of China’s underground churches, who have spread the church’s message for decades.

But Parolin seems to have other priorities than what is right for the faith. His goal appears to be to reestablish diplomatic relations with China, to make his name in history. As undersecretary of state for relations with states, he worked with Cardinal Ivan Cornelius Dias, then the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, believing blindly in the miraculous power of detente with former Soviet states. That same attitude is now being brought to bear on China.

As secretary of state, appointed by Pope Francis, Parolin got rid of me by quietly dismissing the Commission for the Church in China, a commission set up by Pope Benedict with 30 members from the Vatican Curia and from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Then he sent Archbishop Savio Hon — the secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the only Chinese high official in the curia — to Greece.

For the sake of dialogue with China, he eliminated the internal dialogue among ourselves.

Then, in June, the Holy See — without specifying which department and without any signature — issued “Pastoral Guidelines” encouraging people to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, in whose name the Chinese government completely controls an objectively schismatic church. This essentially was selling out the church in China.

My fear is that the same approach is being taken with the Hong Kong protests.

The church has a history of standing up for what is right in Hong Kong. When refugees from communist China first began to flock to Hong Kong, Christian churches contributed with their makeshift schools, hospitals and social centers, and above all, by instilling the Gospel values. This is the spirit and support Hong Kongers need from the Vatican today.

In June, I flew to Rome to present my dubia — or request for clarification — to the Holy Father, focusing on the Vatican’s guidelines on China. The Holy Father invited me to a supper in the presence of Parolin — who did not say a word. At the end of the supper, there was no discussion, and the Holy Father said: “I will look into the matter.”

Five months have passed, and I am still waiting for a word from Pope Francis. The Vatican has yet to make any clear statement on the Hong Kong protests or China’s human rights violations. May God save our church in China.

Read more:

Laurel Chor: The aftermath of an apocalypse: Inside a Hong Kong campus under siege

David Von Drehle: Across China, the clocks are striking thirteen. The people of Hong Kong hear it.

Marc A. Thiessen: He helped end the Soviet empire. Now Lech Walesa wants to help Hong Kong.

Joshua Wong: China can silence me. But it can’t silence Hong Kong’s movement.

The Post’s View: The Catholic Church must not bow to China