HONG KONG -- Hong Kong authorities arrested a Roman Catholic cardinal, a singer and at least two others on Wednesday on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces to endanger China's national security, reports said.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, singer-actress Denise Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng and scholar Hui Po-keung were detained by Hong Kong's National Security Police, the U.K.-based human rights group Hong Kong Watch said.
The arrests were apparently related to their roles as trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided legal aid to people who took part in 2019 pro-democracy protests that were quashed by security forces, the group said. The fund closed in 2021, it said.
Many pro-democracy activists have been arrested under a National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing in 2020 after the demonstrations.
Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, is a critic of China and has condemned the Vatican's 2018 agreement with Beijing over bishop nominations, which he has said was a sellout of underground Christians in China.
The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said the Holy See "learned with concern the news of the arrest of Cardinal Zen and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention."
Ho also has been outspoken in her advocacy of civil and political rights. Her manager, Jelly Cheng, confirmed Ho's arrest but said she had no other information.
Hui was arrested at Hong Kong's international airport as he sought to leave the city, Hong Kong Watch said.
"Today's arrests signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong," said the group's chief executive, Benedict Rogers.
"We urge the international community to shine a light on this brutal crackdown and call for the immediate release of these activists," Rogers said.
The White House also called on China and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong advocates and immediately release Zen and others who were "unjustly detained and charged," deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.
The arrests come after the selection on Sunday of Hong Kong's new leader, John Lee, a hard-line former security chief who ran unopposed in a process controlled by Beijing.
The European Union and foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized countries -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. -- condemned the election as a betrayal of the "one country, two systems" principle under which Hong Kong was supposed to retain its own political, legal and economic system for 50 years after the end of British colonial rule.
Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch's China senior researcher, said she understood a fifth person, former Legislative Council member Cyd Ho Sau-lan, had also been arrested.