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HK's 'Vatican agent' irks Beijing

From CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy

Zen: People in Hong Kong should wake up
Zen: People in Hong Kong should wake up

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- He is one of the most outspoken critics of both the Hong Kong government and Beijing, a position that has led Bishop Joseph Zen to be called the conscience of Hong Kong.

Recently inaugurated as the new head of the Hong Kong Catholic Church, Zen is happy to describe himself as something of a rebel.

"There are many things that require the church to have a stand. That qualifies me as outspoken, or even rebellious," he says.

In the often stale and staid political scene in the former British colony, Bishop Zen well and truly stands out.

"This is more than a breath of fresh air," says legislator Martin Lee. "To have somebody speaking out so clearly in defense of human freedom, I think we are very fortunate to have a bishop like him."

Hong Kong is in its fifth year as a Special Administrative Region of China and topping Zen's concerns is a government move, supported by Beijing, to introduce a law against subversion known as Article 23.

Zen believes it will jeopardize the freedoms, including religious freedom, that China promised to preserve in the territory.

"This Article 23 is really terrible, really terrible. I see danger everywhere in that document. I think that's the worst thing that can happen to Hong Kong after the handover," Zen says.

"[There is danger] even for the church in general, for the press, for those who dissent from the government, from Beijing."

The Chinese government, which does not recognize the Vatican and maintains tight controls over the church on the mainland has branded Zen a "Vatican agent" and barred him from visiting.

"They are afraid of everything they cannot control. They are punishing bishops who do not collaborate, punishing seminaries -- very harsh, very harsh," Zen says.

Because of such controls, many mainland Roman Catholic worship at underground churches. Zen says he intends to maintain contact with such groups.

"We consider all the Catholics in China our brothers, both in the underground and the official church," he says.

Zen has been particularly critical of what he has called Hong Kong's "toadying" political culture -- accusing Chief Executive Tung Chee-wha's government of failing to defend the territory's interests in the face of pressure from Beijing.

"He should have more courage to tell them what is for the real good of Hong Kong and to defend the freedom of the people, to defend the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary," Zen argues.

Zen takes the helm of the church at a time of widespread gloom in Hong Kong over a slumping economy, an unpopular government and an erosion of freedom.

But his message remains uncompromising.

People in Hong Kong should wake up, he says, and speak out or else risk losing the qualities that make the territory unique.

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