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Bishop Joseph Zen Talkasia Transcript

Airdate: July 30th, 2005

LH: Lorraine Hahn
JZ: Joseph Zen

Block A:

LH: Hello and welcome to TalkAisa, I'm Lorraine Hahn. My guest this week is Bishop Joseph Zen -- an outspoken religious leader widely regarded as the moral voice of people here in Hong Kong.

Born in China in 1932, Joseph Zen became a priest at the age of 29. He left his native Shanghai for Hong Kong as a teenager. Over the years he's been a frequent and outspoken critic of the lack of religious freedom in China. He was made bishop in September 2002, and almost immediately led the Diocese in protesting against Beijing's attempts to introduce anti-subversion laws in Hong Kong, which he feared might lead to civil rights' violations. Not one to shy away from speaking his mind, Bishop Zen is a very recognizable face, and has even been voted Hong Kong's "Most Significant Person" by a major local newspaper. In May last year, he became the first bishop of Hong Kong to visit the mainland since the former colony's return to Chinese rule.

Bishop Zen, welcome to the studio, very good to see you. Now you are known for your outspoken nature, whether it's religious or political affairs. What motivates you to do this?

JZ: I think we are part of the people, and we must be concerned of whatever is about our people. And I think the church is present in Hong Kong for many years, and a very active part and we may say we invested our resources for the benefit of these people. So we hope to keep what is the strong point of Hong Kong, and that's for Hong Kong people and also good for our country as a whole.

LH: But shouldn't there be a separation of church and state?

JZ: Yes, church and state surely are distinct. But as people we are members of the church but we are also member of the society. I think in the modern understanding of the role of the church, we have to be part of the society.

LH: Bishop Zen, in your vocal opposition of various government policies you have been called many names, many of which are very uncomplimentary, so I won't repeat them. How do you feel about that?

JZ: I think maybe we are used to our small environment here in Hong Kong. But if you look at the world, you see that it's not very strange that a bishop should speak out on social issues.

LH: But what do you say to people who say, "Why don't you just stick to your religious duties and don't meddle in politics"?

JZ: I think that's wrong because the politics may have basically two different, very different meanings. One is what we call the "power politics." So for example, to be a member of party, to run for election, or to have public functions, you know. But the other meaning is much more open, is to be concerned about whatever happens in the society.

LH: Bishop Zen you were one of the leading voices for the protest against the anti-subversion laws here in Hong Kong, where half a million people took to the streets. We've seen many, many pictures. Why did you feel it was so necessary for you to speak out then?

JZ: I think that proposed law really threatened to destroy this "one country, two systems." And so many freedoms were threatened and also in particular, the religious freedom also. There is a clause at the end of that proposed law, which everybody know was targeting the Falun Gong, but then later may be used against the church.

LH: Are there any other issues or government policies that you are concerned about now?

JZ: I think we have still many problems here in Hong Kong, especially this gap between the rich and the poor is widening. So that's not good, that's not progress. There is still much discrimination against the weak, and I think we need a conversion.

LH: Bishop Zen, the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, is a devout Catholic. Do you think that having this faith will help him in his new position as the leader of Hong Kong?

JZ: I think surely the Christian faith would help him, first of all to give him always the peace of heart and the right intention to serve people. But then there is no guarantee that a devout Catholic may necessarily be a good Chief Executive because that very difficult job.

LH: True it is. We've seen that being proven right? What role do you see Hong Kong playing in terms of bridging the gap between China and the Catholic Church?

JZ: You know, from the point of faith we see these 50 or more years of history as providential. And I think we could preserve the religious freedom and to work freely like the church does in many other parts of the world. And I think one day we may be allowed to do the same also on mainland China.

LH: Bishop Zen we're going to take a very short break. When we come back, we'll talk to the Bishop about religious freedom in Asia, and the future of Sino-Vatican ties. So don't go away.

Block B:

LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia, with me today is the outspoken Bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen. Bishop Zen, relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been severed for more than 50 years now. Do you see any chance of ties being mended anytime soon?

JZ: We know very well that in recent years the Vatican was always very anxious to start some dialogue with authorities in Beijing, but it seems the Beijing authorities were not very interested. Now these events last April, the passing away of the Pope and the coming of the new Pope, may have been a very good occasion for the Beijing authorities to get interested. And I really hope that they really come to dialogue because the two main points mentioned by Beijing are not impossible points. The first is about recognizing Beijing authority as the only authority in China. So leaving the Taiwan, the diplomatic relation with Taiwan, to switch this relation to Beijing has already been decided in the Vatican so there's no difficulty at all. And then what they call the "interference" can be very well explained. The interference is not interference because the Pope is supposed to govern the whole church in the whole world, but that's religious affair. So it's not any interference in the affairs of the Republic. And so I think the Vatican is also ready to some compromise, even in the appointing bishops. And so I think they should start talking.

LH: Would you see Taiwan as a compromise?

JZ: You see...it is a kind of difficulty because the Holy See never abandoned a friendly country unilaterally. But then the Holy See explained to the bishops in Taiwan and indirectly also to the government, that the Holy Father has to take care also of the so many Catholics in China, on mainland China. And that would be impossible without a diplomatic relation. So the Bishops understand and also some of the government, surely many people may not be happy about that, but that is already peaceful. I mean the Secretary of State already in 1999 said something really clear. That can be done at any moment.

LH: Bishop Zen, tell me about this underground movement I read about very often. That a lot of...millions of Catholics possibly in China, do still go underground to worship outside of the state sanctioned churches. Is this true?

JZ: Oh sure. You know because for many Catholics, to be a Catholic you must be connected with the Holy See. So what the government is promoting, this independent Church is in some way against our belief -- and so many think that in their conscience they can't accept. But other people think that a kind of compromise can be accepted, and so there are two different parts of faith.

LH: Do you maintain any ties with these underground churches yourself?

JZ: Sure, but there is not much possibility because everything is controlled by the government. But whenever possible we try to be contact also with this underground church and to help them in whatever we can.

LH: Does persecution really still exist in China?

JZ: Oh yes, because bishops, priests are still being arrested. But we can see some progress there also. Because now when they arrest people they don't keep them very long in the prison. Or many times they don't even put them in real prison, they put them in the guest house of the public security, something like that. So there's a more humane way in doing things.

LH: Do you see though Bishop Zen, that China may be a bit worried or scared of the Catholic Church or other spiritual movements. Do you get that feeling at all?

JZ: Yes, I understand because they are not used to this in China. But I'm sure that there are several people in the...I mean, in the...those that direct the public affairs in China. They are better acquainted with what happens in the world, and I hope little by little they can accept that.

LH: The China you see now is it heading in the right direction? Are you happy with the development? Are you confident that China is moving in the right direction?

JZ: Not yet, not yet. I think there is much openness about economic, but I hope they should start some more democracy at least within the party. The impression is that there is not much democracy, not even in the party.

LH: Yes, yes, most definitely. But while the economy as you mentioned is growing so rapidly, do you think the spiritual side of things are being neglected?

BZ: I'm not very well acquainted with what is happening in China, but from what I hear from some bishops in China, they are really worried about what we call the secularization. It means people live without any religious belief, and sometimes even without much concern for ethical values.

LH: Bishop Zen we're going to take another very, very short break.

LH: When we return we'll hear about the Vatican under Pope Benedict the XVI, and some personal causes close to Bishop Zen's heart. We'll be right back.

Block C:

LH: Hello again this is TalkAsia and we're talking to Bishop Zen. Bishop Zen what made you get into the priesthood?

JZ: It was so natural process because my father, he was baptized when he was doing the college and he want to be priest. But at that time the neophyte, those newly baptized, were not encouraged to become priests. So the priests told him, "you get married and then let your child, your son be a priest." So my father had this desire that his son should be a priest. Actually I had five sisters before me, so he had to wait. And then he used to bring me to the church everyday, so very naturally...

LH: What did your mother have to say about this?

JZ: Actually my mother was not that enthusiastic. But then at a certain moment, you know the passage between primary school and secondary school, sometimes the boy becomes more independent, etc. So my mother was a little worried, so finally she said, "Better a priest than to lose my child."

LH: Right, that is true, that is true. You had no other ambitions to be something else, so the church, the calling of the church was always there...?

JZ: No, no, everything very smooth. So first I did my primary school; then I joined the Salesian Juniorate. The Salesian is an order in the church, and there was so joyful atmosphere so I stay there very happy. And then I came to Hong Kong in '48, joined the novitiate, the first real entrance into the order, and since then I stayed in the order, very happy.

LH: Yes you left Shanghai when you were 16 to come to Hong Kong. That must have been a big decision, you left family, you left friends.

JZ: Yes but in '48 we couldn't foresee all things happen later, so the plan was to come to Hong Kong for three or four years and then go back to Shanghai. Because the Salesian Order has the novitiate and the initial studies in Hong Kong, but then we are supposed to go back to Shanghai to work.

LH: What about your family and your sisters?

JZ: You see my father died before I left Shanghai, but fortunately I had brother-in-law that was very good so he took care of my mother together with my sister. But then after that we were cut off and I could only write very simple letter to my family saying I'm ok because you know my family suffered also much because of our fate and because...also because of me. Because they thought I was being trained as an agent of the foreign power, something like that.

LH: You also Bishop Zen have been in the presence of His Holiness, the late John Paul, what was he like?

JZ: I have rather close contact, maybe three times, the first time when I was made a bishop. So we visit him together with Bishop Tom, and he explained his desire to visit China. And then during the scene (?) of the bishops, we were invited by group of 10 or 12 to have lunch with him. And I realized that he has wonderful memory, he remembered everybody. And the third time it was after a meeting on China and so after meeting we went to report to him during the lunch. And he listened very carefully about all the problems and the solutions the group were proposing. I enjoyed very much this close contact because he's so natural and so kind.

LH: Pope Benedict, how different do you see him from the late John Paul?

JZ: The new Pope was for so many years the closest collaborator with John Paul, so his election means continuity. And I'm very happy because of this, because I think we need continuity in this moment and I think that gives a sense of security, of stability. And he also very kind person. I met him several times, very humble. Surely his job was to keep the doctrine in the right direction, and so sometimes he has to reproach some theologian or to warn them about their mistakes so that was his job. And so some people describe him as somebody very tough, but he is not very tough, he is very kind, very gentle.

LH: As Bishop, what do you hope most for the people of Hong Kong and the region and China?

JZ: I hope really we can keep our system and develop what is the strong points, and correct what is the defects, and then I think our strong point is the desire of living peacefully together. This is strong point. And also generosity which is so evident in many occasions. And then sometimes we have also our weak points, you know there are moments of generosity but there are also moments when we tend also to be a little selfish. So I think we have to develop the generosity and be less selfish, and to be concerned for all our people in Hong Kong.

LH: Right, Bishop Zen thank you very much for sharing your time with us, thank you. And that is our show this week, I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.

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