Cardinal Zen's thorny road

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 April, 2006, 12:00am

Those of us who are not particularly religious will find it easy to chuckle at what our new cardinal, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, said when a judge freed the last of the Korean protesters charged after December's riots during the World Trade Organisation meetings. 'These Korean people are very mild and kind protesters and not violent people, and surely they did not deserve such treatment.'

My colleagues and I considered running his sound bite on that evening's television news using a split-screen that also showed violent flashbacks to the riots. But we decided against it, telling ourselves that doing so would be editorialising. Still, it made me wonder if the line that separates politics from religion is becoming even more blurred. True, that line has never been clear, and religions - not least Catholic Christianity - have always intruded into politics, and vice versa.

But are we now moving from accepting a blurred line to having no line at all? US President George W. Bush thinks nothing of boasting that he is doing God's work in trying to democratise the Middle East. Now, even the supposedly more savvy British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he was guided by God in deciding to join the American invasion of Iraq. Neither man suffered a drop in his approval ratings for confessing that religion played a part in his political decisions.

Unlike them, Cardinal Zen has not clearly linked his drive for democracy in Hong Kong and on the mainland to the wishes of the Almighty. But what should we make of a religious leader who believes his elevated rank has made him a crusader in the politically thorny battlefield of mainland-Taiwan relations? His wish for restored Vatican relations with Beijing puts him in the treacherous currents of cross-strait rivalry, waters in which he may be out of his depth.

Equally thorny is the road leading to mainland-Vatican ties, which contains both political and moral potholes. Abandoning Taipei for Beijing is one thing - political expediency dictates that, nowadays. But is the Vatican warming to Beijing because it believes that is the moral thing to do, and if so, is the goal political or religious, or both?

China's 1-billion-plus population would provide rich pickings for converts, and Beijing insists the country enjoys religious freedom. So, does mending ties mean Catholic missionaries becoming fishers of men - and women - on the mainland? Or is the goal to convert the country to democracy, something Cardinal Zen would dearly like to see?

Whatever the goal, I am trying hard to imagine the mainland scenes that would follow restored relations: worshippers freely attending a proliferation of new churches, missionaries casting ever wider nets in an atheistic land, millions turning out for a historic papal visit, and eventually religious freedom leading to political freedom. It would be churlish to appear cynical about all this at a time when Christianity's Easter celebrations mark one of its most important events, and while the faithful in Hong Kong are celebrating Cardinal Zen's new status.

Many see him as a divisive figure, a religious leader who has no business preaching politics. But those who have met him personally - as I have - get the sense that when he defended the Korean rioters, he was siding with the underdog, not against the police. Isn't that what men of the cloth are supposed to do?

And should we fault his activism when it played a part, however small, in moving forward Sino-Vatican ties, which most people want? The issue we should be more concerned about is: relations at what cost? The Vatican appears willing to be flexible towards Beijing's demands to have a say in the choosing of bishops, not to interfere in the mainland's internal affairs and to cut ties with Taiwan. But, other than restored ties, what will the Vatican get in return?

Michael Chugani is editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs