Chinese spies tried to disrupt a secret far-right Catholic political meeting at the Fátima shrine, in Portugal, out of concerns about the presence there of Hongkonger politicians, and a Hongkonger cardinal, critical of China’s communist regime.

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From 22-25 August, the International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN) held its 10th International Pilgrimage for Politicians and Family Summit in a hotel next to Portugal’s most famous religious landmark.

It was the first time the ICLN has held its annual meeting outside of the Vatican.

Discussions at the ICLN summits are kept in the strictest of secrecies.

That’s so invitees “may freely debate and exchange their thoughts on the topics discussed “, in the ICLN’s own words.

Among the 200 or so participants in the pilgrimage this year were Viktor Orbán, the controversial far-right Hungarian Prime Minister, and Mick Mulvaney, chief-of-staff to US President Donald Trump.

But it was the presence there of Hongkonger Cardinal Joseph Zen, as well as of two other national deputies – all of whom are supporters of the ongoing anti-China protests – that set off alarm bells for the Chinese embassy in Portugal.

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The Portuguese weekly Sábado revealed Thursday that staff of the Chinese embassy tried several times to gain access to the ICLN summit in order to understand what was being discussed at the meeting.

They also tried to photograph summit participants, in what Portuguese sources described as “unacceptable” behaviour from foreign diplomatic representatives.

US Ambassador to Portugal George Glass, who attended the Fátima meet, told Sábado that “unfortunately, there were attempts to disrupt the meeting, one of which I personally witnessed, by people who wanted to block the participation of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun from Hong Kong”.

“The Portuguese authorities prevented these attempts”, Glass explained.

What’s next

Sábado said that the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now investigating the case of attempted Chinese espionage, which it views with great concern.

A source from the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Augusto Santos Silva said the ministry “is aware that there were staffers of the Chinese embassy in Fátima, but does not know what their purpose was”.

That being said, that source explained that Portugal does not restrict the movements of foreign diplomats in the country.

“Portugal has good relations with the People’s Republic of China and wants those to continue”, the source added.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.