HONG KONG (AP) -- He's unwelcome in China and often makes Hong Kong's government leaders uncomfortable, but to thousands of Chinese migrants living here illegally, Bishop Joseph Zen is a hero.
The No. 2 leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong has become increasingly vocal and political since he lashed out at the communist regime in Beijing two years ago for saying the territory's 347,000 Catholics should keep a low profile over the Vatican's canonization of Chinese martyrs.
The bishop is back in the spotlight because of the current dispute over immigration. Since the beginning of April, Hong Kong has been deporting mainland Chinese migrants, thousands of whom defied orders to leave by March 31 under a January court ruling that they don't have residency rights.
Some migrants have gone into hiding, and the 70-year-old Zen has urged the government to show compassion and grant all the migrants amnesty -- drawing criticism from people who argue his call encourages migrants to break the law and stay.
''He is lifting the migrants' hope and is making them feel they have a powerful backup,'' said pro-Beijing lawmaker Ip Kwok-him. ''I don't think it's so appropriate for a religious figure of such high standing to be so involved in politics.''
Wong Yan-siu, a migrant who is trying to get an extension to stay, sees Zen differently.
''He understands our plight and has done a lot to support us. We're thankful that someone of such status is putting himself out to help us,'' Wong said.
Zen makes no apologies for stirring things up.
''Together with the salvation of souls, we have to also transform the society according to the teaching of the Gospels,'' the soft-spoken Zen said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''And the essence of that is charity, love, justice and compassion.''
He works in a spare office that contains only a desk stacked neatly with papers and has walls decorated by a wooden crucifix, a photograph of Pope John Paul II and a few religious drawings.
Shaking his head, the gray-haired bishop said clashes with the government are unavoidable as he seeks to promote spiritual justice in a society that many people worry is becoming more like the officially atheistic mainland China.
His critics -- mostly pro-Beijing figures -- call him anti-government and unpatriotic.
Zen, who was born in the mainland city of Shanghai, says that's ridiculous.
''Of course I'm patriotic, but China is not used to speech freedom, so our criticism is seen as unpatriotic,'' he said. ''In fact, criticism is also a manifestation of patriotism.''
Opponents accuse Zen of supporting Chinese underground churches and sympathizing with the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is outlawed in China but legal in Hong Kong.
China's Catholic hierarchy fled to Taiwan in 1951, two years after the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek lost a civil war to the communists of Mao Tse-tung and ended up on Taiwan.
That cut off Catholics on the mainland, where they are now required by law to worship in state-sanctioned churches that limit religious activities. But scholars estimate roughly half of the 12 million Chinese Catholics worship in unofficial underground churches, which have stayed loyal to the pope.
Zen answered cautiously when asked about any support provided the underground churches, saying individual believers sometimes help when and where they can.
But he said Catholics will never compromise their religion -- an attitude that collides with Beijing's insistence on the state coming above all else.
''If they want complete surrender, that's against our faith,'' Zen said. ''Nobody can sell his conscience to the government.''
Last year, he lashed out at Hong Kong's political leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, for calling Falun Gong a cult in an apparent attempt to please China's government.
Zen said the episode made him fear for Hong Kong's autonomy. ''I'm not defending Falun Gong, but they've done nothing criminal in Hong Kong.''
Zen said many government officials have acted against their own conscience to please the Beijing regime since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule almost five years ago.
Hong Kong should jealously guard its autonomy guaranteed under the ''one country, two systems'' political arrangement that gives citizens here Western-style civil liberties, including religious freedom, he said. ''You can't take it for granted.''
His approach, predictably, has not gone over well with China's leaders.
Zen has been barred from visiting the mainland since 1998, two years after he was made a bishop. He believes the ban, similar to those imposed on Hong Kong political opposition figures, was punishment for a speech he gave in the Vatican lamenting China's lack of religious freedom.
''They're really afraid of Hong Kong,'' he said. ''But they needn't be. Catholics are a minority in China. We'll never make a revolution.''
On the Net:
Hong Kong Catholic Diocese: http://www.catholic.org.hk/engindex.html
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