Hong Kong's new Catholic leader says proposed anti-subversion law could be used against the church

HONG KONG - Hong Kong's new and outspoken Roman Catholic leader says an anti-subversion law proposed by the territory's government is frightening as it possibly could be used against the church, which supports underground Catholic groups outlawed in mainland China.

"I'm pretty scared," Bishop Joseph Zen said in an interview with a Hong Kong cable television station seen Friday.

The planned legislation calls on Hong Kong to ban groups linked to organizations on the mainland that are considered threats to Chinese national security.

"What if the mainland government says the Catholic Church is a threat to the nation? Even if they don't investigate further, we will admit we belong to the same church as underground (Catholic) churches in China," Zen told Cable TV in the Thursday evening interview posted on Cable TV's Web site.

China does not recognize the Vatican and allows its Catholics only to worship at state-sanctioned churches. However, scholars estimate that half the mainland's 12 million Catholics attend unofficial underground churches that are loyal to the Pope.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The former British colony enjoys Western-style freedoms denied on the mainland, but it is constitutionally required to pass legislation prohibiting acts against the central Chinese government such as subversion, treason, sedition and the theft of state secrets.

The government made its proposal for such a law public last week. Although officials say the law would be rarely used, critics fear it might be used to clamp down on opinions unpopular with China.

Zen, who replaced Cardinal John Baptist Wu after Wu's death last week, has long been a critic of Beijing.

Although he has said that he might tone down his views in his new role, the two sides have already butted heads.

In the interview with Cable TV, Zen urged China's newly arrived chief representative in Hong Kong, Gao Siren, to keep the same low profile as Gao's predecessor, Jiang Enzhu.

At a reception marking China's Oct. 1 national day, Gao said he hoped Zen would "behave himself."

Calls to Zen's and Gao's offices were not immediately answered.

Zen has been a visible advocate for mainland-born sons and daughters of Hong Kong residents who have been fighting a losing struggle for residency rights here. Banned from visiting the mainland since 1998, he has also criticized Beijing officials for asking Hong Kong Catholics to keep a low profile over the Vatican's canonization of Chinese martyrs, which was opposed by Beijing.