Cardinal Zen Accepts Canadian Human Rights Award On Behalf Of The Voiceless

“I’m delighted to announce that this year’s John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award is awarded to His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong,” John Baird, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister said in presenting the human rights award to Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun at a ceremony in Vancouver on October 31.

Baird explained that Cardinal Zen was chosen for his unwavering commitment to human rights, democracy and religious freedom.

Baird explained that Cardinal Zen is considered a worthy recipient for his tireless advocacy in defence of human rights, as a promoter of good governance and a beacon for democratic reform in Hong Kong.

He said he has rightly earned a reputation as “the new conscience of Hong Kong” and represents the best traits of humanity. “The government of Canada and the Canadian people are proud to stand with him,” Baird said.

In introducing Cardinal Zen to the gathering, Baird called the award important as it recognises someone who has gone above and beyond in championing the values Canadian people hold dear.

“But we are here together peacefully as Canadians, sharing the belief that everyone should have the freedom to pursue their own beliefs,” the foreign minister continued, lamenting that oftentimes talk about human rights can become a jumbled mix of clichés and abstract buzzwords.

“But for far too many people around the world, these concepts are all too real,” Baird pointed out. “In fact, one recent study by Pew Research (Centre) estimated that as much as 75 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religion. That’s a shocking figure.”

Baird added that Cardinal Zen’s advocacy has crossed borders, particularly into mainland China.

“His actions, including calling for the release of detained political activists and demanding that the truth be told about what took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989 have earned him international acclaim,” he said.

Replying to Baird, Cardinal Zen quoted an ancient Chinese proverb that he said imparts good advice at times of criticism.

“If you find it objective, correct yourself; if not, ignore it.”

He then explained that the converse can be equally sage, saying that at a time of compliments it may well read, “If you believe you deserve them, praise the Lord; if not, just forget them.”

However, his innate humility got the better of him and he added, “Even though I was fully aware of my unworthiness, because we, I mean myself and the people of Hong Kong, badly need some encouragement at this time in our desperate fight for human rights, I accepted the honour without hesitation.”

He regretted that since the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, a new political system has been introduced by outsiders who do not always understand the culture of the former British colony, and they unwittingly did damage.

“The culture of mainland China has facilitated the development of a new cultural characteristic in Hong Kong, toadying to the powerful and oppressing the weak,” he explained.

He then spoke of the denial of the right of abode to children born of Hong Kong residents, the curtailment of rights of new immigrants and foreign domestic workers, as well as the usurping of control of Church schools through the introduction of Incorporated Management Committees.

He added that the Church is now being accused of meddling in mainland politics, but questioned, “How can we keep silent, when our brothers and sisters are being deprived of real religious freedom?”

Cardinal Zen noted that while there is still freedom of speech and of assembly in Hong Kong, the situation worsens day by day and the majority opinion is quickly becoming the minority representation in the Legislative Council.

“Then, why should a Churchman meddle in such political matters?” he asked, answering his own question saying, “The Council Fathers (Vatican II) affirm clearly the duty of all the faithful to take part in politics, because politics means primarily things which concern everybody in society.”

He pointed out that this was reiterated at the diocesan synod in Hong Kong in 2000.

“The members of the synod solemnly declared that the duty of the pastors is to lead the faithful in their concern for society and in the defence of human rights. This resolution has governed our actions ever since,” he said.

Baird explained that Diefenbaker was Canada’s 13th prime minister and during his six years in office he fought ceaselessly for human rights, enabling the adoption of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960.

He added that Diefenbaker’s administration also granted the franchise to members of the First Nations, without loss of treaty status, appointed the first woman ever to the cabinet and set the tune for Canadian social policies for decades to come.

He pointed out also that the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, appointed the country’s first ever ambassador for religious freedom in February this year.

Cardinal Zen thanked the Canadian people and government for honouring him, saying, “In the name of all the underprivileged, voiceless people in Hong Kong and of all those who work for them I accept the award… for the distinction bestowed upon my unworthy person.”

He concluded, “May the good Lord, our heavenly Father, reward the noble nation of Canada for its exemplary leadership in promoting sacred human rights and shower on you all his abundant grace.”

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