Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others stood trial in Hong Kong on Monday for failing to properly register a fund to provide legal aid to pro-democracy protesters.

The 90-year-old cardinal and retired bishop of Hong Kong arrived at the court in West Kowloon on Sept. 26 using a cane to walk. He was arrested in May along with other democracy activists under Hong Kong’s strict national security law.

In addition to Zen, who has been free on bail since early May, several others have been charged for failing to apply for local society registration for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund between 2019 and 2021.

Those accused with Zen are lawyer Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, activist Sze Ching-wee, and ex-legislator Cyd Ho.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty. Cyd Ho is already jailed for a different charge. The fund helped pro-democracy protesters pay their legal fees until it dissolved itself in October 2021.

On the first day of the trial, the prosecution said that the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund had raised a total of $34.4 million and used part of the fund for “political activities and non-charity events” such as donations to protest groups, AFP reported.

The defense argued that this was irrelevant to the charge as to whether the humanitarian fund had registered correctly. The defendants’ lawyers previously said they had the right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law — the legal framework created when Great Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The defendants have not yet been indicted under Hong Kong’s national security law, which broadly criminalizes “sedition” and “collusion with foreign forces,” which would have carried much more severe penalties.

If convicted under the current charge, Zen and the others could face a fine of about $1,200 but no jail time. Zen’s trial, delayed by one week after the presiding judge tested positive for COVID-19, is expected to conclude in November, according to AFP.

Vatican response

The Vatican has mostly worked behind the scenes on Zen’s trial apart from issuing a statement after the cardinal’s arrest in May expressing concern and that it was “following the development of the situation with extreme attention.”

The cardinal’s trial comes as the Holy See and Beijing are determining the terms of the renewal of an agreement on the appointment of bishops in China. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in an Italian television interview on Sept. 2 that a delegation of Vatican diplomats has returned from China and that he believes that the agreement will be renewed this fall.

Zen has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Vatican’s agreement with China since it was first signed in 2018, calling it “an incredible betrayal.”

Pope Francis did not directly respond to a question about Zen’s trial during an in-flight press conference on Sept. 15.

He said the Vatican had “chosen the path of dialogue” with China.

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller has expressed disappointment that the College of Cardinals has not expressed “full solidarity with Zen.”

Following a meeting of nearly 200 Catholic cardinals at the Vatican last month, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told Il Messaggero on Sept. 1: “From the silence of this consistory on the Zen case, I have fears.”

“Perhaps the Church should be freer and less bound to power-based, worldly logic, consequently freer to intervene and, if necessary, to criticize those politicians who end up suppressing human rights. In this case, I wonder why not criticize Beijing,” Mueller said.

“Zen is a symbol and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing, he is an influential, courageous, and much feared figure by the government,” he said. “He is over 80 years old and we have left him all alone.”

Cardinal Zen was born into a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932 during the years of the Chinese Communist Party insurgency against China’s Nationalist government.

At the age of 16, he fled Shanghai for Hong Kong a year before the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, many Catholics were arrested for refusing to comply with government campaigns to eliminate foreign influence and nationalize private schools. China severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1951.

Zen was ordained a Salesian priest in 1961 and later served as the Salesian provincial superior for China, teaching philosophy and theology in seminaries in the country from 1989 to 1996.

Pope John Paul II named him a coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, a year before the British handover of the Hong Kong colony to China. Zen became the bishop of the diocese in 2002, a post he held until his retirement in 2009.

As bishop emeritus, Zen has been an outspoken voice as both a strong supporter of democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong and a fierce critic of the Vatican’s provisional agreement with Chinese authorities signed in 2018.

After Beijing imposed its national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, Zen told CNA that the Catholics arrested under the new law’s provisions were “simply putting into practice the social teaching of the Church.”

“In this moment, democracy means freedom and human rights, human dignity,” Zen said.

The cardinal offered Mass after his first court appearance in May after his arrest and said in his homily: “Martyrdom is normal in our Church.”

“We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith,” the cardinal said.