A 90-year-old Hong Kong cardinal arrested last year under the city’s national security law received court permission on Tuesday to attend the funeral of former pope Benedict XVI, a source told AFP.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia’s highest-ranking Catholics, had his passport confiscated by authorities after he was arrested last May over a now-disbanded fund that helped pro-democracy protesters.

Cardinal Joseph Zen at at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Cardinal Joseph Zen (centre) at at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Zen is among the scores of pro-democracy supporters facing legal threats in Hong Kong, as China stamps out dissent in the former British colony following huge and often violent protests in 2019.

Magistrate Peter Law ruled at a closed-door hearing on Tuesday that Zen could leave the city for five days and that his passport should be temporarily returned, a source with knowledge of the decision told AFP, asking not to be identified.

The funeral for former pontiff Benedict, who died on New Year’s Eve, will be led by his successor Pope Francis in the Vatican on Thursday.

Benedict elevated Zen to the Catholic church’s College of Cardinals in 2006. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen leaving Chai Wan Police Station on May 11, 2022 at around 11 p.m. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Hours before the Tuesday hearing, Zen published an article praising the former pontiff as a “great defender of truth” and for his contributions to the Chinese church.

“He could not accept any compromise,” Zen wrote, referring to a letter Benedict wrote in 2007 asking China’s communist government to respect religious freedom.

Zen has in recent years accused the Vatican of “selling out” China’s underground Catholic community, after Pope Francis sought to improve ties with Beijing.

The cardinal was among five pro-democracy campaigners arrested last May for “collusion with foreign forces”, an offence under the national security law that carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment.

The group were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was set up in 2019 to raise funds to support the legal and medical needs of arrested pro-democracy protesters.

cyd ho joseph zen margaret ng denise ho hui po-keung 612 humanitarian relief fund
(From left) Cyd Ho, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho and Hui Po-keung, the former trustees of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In November, the group were fined after a court found they had failed to properly register the fund.

The trustees have lodged an appeal to a higher court.

While Zen was arrested under the draconian national security law he has not yet been charged with any crimes under it.

Like many of those arrested under that law, or still under investigation, he was forced to forfeit his passport after his arrest. 

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