Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old former Roman Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, was arrested in the former British colony on May 11. The cleric has been charged with conspiring to work with foreigners to subvert national security. The national security police arrested three others who had worked with him in a charitable organization devoted to helping pro-democracy protesters. One of those arrested was singer Denise Ho.

In addition to Zen and Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng was arrested, according to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP). All three had been trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, the news outlet said.

That organization had paid for legal and medical assistance to participants in the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations, the HKFP said.

One day earlier, the national security police had arrested another former trustee, Hui Po-keung, a cultural studies scholar, who had been preparing to fly out of the territory, the HKFP said.

RTHK, Hong Kong's public broadcaster, reported that all four had been released on bail. They were suspected of having conspired to work with foreigners to endanger national security, RTHK said. Cyd Ho, another former trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, was continuing to serve a 14-month prison sentence for participating in illegal gatherings in 2019, RTHK said.

White House calls for release of pro-democracy figures

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre called on the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities "to cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates." She also called for the release of those "who have been unjustly detained and charged, like the Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and others arrested today." Jean-Pierre said that the freedom to criticize the government openly was "critical to prosperous and secure societies." Her entire statement can be found on the White House website.

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said: "In arresting these veteran activists, scholars, and religious leaders under the so-called National Security Law, Hong Kong authorities have again demonstrated that they will pursue all means necessary to stifle dissent and undercut protected rights and freedoms. We call for the immediate release of all of those who remain in custody, and of course, we continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong." His remarks can be read in their entirety on the State Department website.

'A direct challenge to the international community'

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China called for those arrested to be set free immediately. In a statement posted on Twitter, the international group of legislators said the arrest of the pro-democracy activists was "a direct challenge to the international community."

The group called for sanctions to be put on the leaders of the territory's government. The statement added, "Failure to respond would send a devastating signal to the people of Hong Kong: that nobody is safe from the reaches of this nefarious law, not even those with international standing."

Canadian foreign minister: arrests are 'deeply troubling'

On Twitter, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly said the arrests had been "deeply disturbing." She said, "The ongoing targeting of civil society groups erodes the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents guaranteed under Hong Kong's Basic Law."

Vatican voices concern

Vatican News quoted Matteo Bruni of the Holy See Press Office as saying: "The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen's arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention." Vatican News recalled that Zen had been bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009.

Zen had previously accused the Chinese Communist Party of harassing people because of their religion, Vatican News recalled. The territory's National Security Law, which had been imposed by mainland China in 2020, was being used retroactively against Zen's conduct in 2019, the news outlet said.

Catherine West, a Labour member of the U.K. parliament, responded to the arrests on Twitter. She said they were "a further demonstration of China's aim to stamp out opposition" in the former British colony.

China tells foreign critics: 'Stop playing dumb!'

On May 12, RTHK reported that China had reacted angrily to criticisms of the arrests.

The broadcaster quoted a Foreign Ministry statement that said: "The foreign forces know very well where these people went and what they did. Stop playing dumb!"

In 2019, Denise Ho appeared before the United Nations and the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. She spoke about the dangers facing democratic life in Hong Kong. Videos of her presentations can be found on YouTube.

"Hong Kongers are now living in constant fear and have unfortunately lost most of our freedoms," she told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. "If Hong Kong falls, it would easily become the springboard for the totalitarian regime of China to push its rules and priorities overseas," she warned.