Catholics in Vietnam Still on a Short Leash

Author: William Bole


The U.S. may be opening up an embassy in Hanoi, but most doors remain closed for Vietnamese believers

by William Bole

While enjoying better relations with the United States, the Vietnamese government has nonetheless continued to suppress religious freedom, insisting on control over the activities of the Catholic Church and other faith groups, according to human-rights analysts.

At the same time, observers agree that the situation of religious believers has improved in the past few years. Some even see a religious revival underway despite the rule of hard-line communists.

Those recent assessments came on the heels of the decision by the United States to re- establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

In making the announcement earlier this month, President Clinton said, "Let this moment, in the words of the Scripture, be a time to heal and a time to build."

The resumed diplomatic ties symbolize a healing of war wounds between the two countries, progress toward a full accounting of American soldiers missing in action and the Vietnamese government's policy of economic liberalization.

But the new freedoms granted to entrepreneurs and capitalists in Vietnam have not been matched by an equal tolerance of religious belief and political dissent, according to Western organizations that monitor human rights.

And there is criticism by some that the Clinton administration acted too soon in extending diplomatic recognition to Vietnam, although Church officials have applauded the action.


"The place is still extremely oppressive. There is no religious freedom, no political freedom, no freedom of trade unionism," said Nina Shea, president of the Puebla Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors religious freedom.

Last year, the Puebla Institute issued a 113-page report titled "Vietnam: Free Market, Captive Conscience," which focused on religious repression in that country. The report concluded that progress toward religious freedom has lagged far behind economic reforms.

But there has been progress, Shea said.

"For a long time, people were too afraid to go to church. That situation has changed. Things are better. People are packing the Masses. Last Christmas, congregations were overflowing onto the streets," she said.

"People are turning out. There is an outpouring of Catholic faith."

From Vietnam have come reports of renewed popular interest in many forms of religion and spirituality, even amid the clampdown on churches and sects. The Manchester Guardian recently told of the trends in a dispatch titled "Hanoi frowns as gods stage a comeback."

"There have certainly been improvements in the situation of ordinary believers," said Dinah PoKempner, an associate with the Asia bureau of Human Rights Watch, a private organization based in New York. "The government is moving slowly and cautiously toward greater latitude for believers."

Still, the Vietnamese government has remained "very uncomfortable with institutional autonomy" among religious bodies, PoKempner said.

That discomfort shows in Vietnam's policies toward the Catholic Church.

In a major point of contention, the government has assumed veto power over the appointment of bishops, something that Rome considers a basic religious right. For this reason, several major dioceses remain without bishops.

Some priests and nuns designated as religious dissidents have been freed from prison or house arrest, but the government places severe limits on the work of their religious orders.

The seminaries are open, following the darker days of religious repression beginning with the communist takeover in 1975, but state officials still exert control over who gets into the seminary, and who gets ordained after completing studies toward the priesthood, according to human-rights analysts.

And so there is a backlog of seminary candidates, and a troubling shortage of priests.

There are unconfirmed reports that some bishops have begun to secretly ordain priests to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics-an estimated 6 million, or 7 percent of the Vietnamese population.

Yet, even in areas with priests, the Church finds it hard to carry out its mission. Strict control is said to remain over nearly all pastoral activities, including religious education and charitable work. "What they're trying to do is crack down on the hierarchy and decapitate the Church," said Shea. "In Vietnam, you're allowed to hold Mass at a certain time and certain place, and that's about it."

As bad as things are for Catholics, they are even worse for the more numerous Buddhists and the many fewer evangelical Protestants who worship in rural house churches, according to Western human-rights monitors.

While trying in more subtle ways to control and manipulate the Catholic Church, the government has used cruder methods against other faith groups, reported the Puebla Institute. The report cited continued arrests, torture and imprisonment.

Part of the explanation offered is that Buddhists and rural Protestants have fewer connections to the outside world than do Catholics, who are city-dwellers for the most part and members of a global Church institution.

Some U.S. Catholic human-rights activists think the Clinton administration acted prematurely in resuming formal ties to Vietnam.


"As a practical matter, they [U.S. officials] should have gotten concessions for human rights in Vietnam, before they did it," said Shea.

Officially, however, the Church-at all levels, including the Vatican-has favored closer relations between the United States and Vietnam.

Within hours of President Clinton's announcement, the U.S. bishops issued a statement welcoming the move, expressing hope that it would "improve and strengthen discussions between our two countries on matters of great concern, especially human rights and religious freedom, the MIA-POW question, and refugee and immigration concerns."

On numerous occasions, the bishops have pressed American officials to put human rights high on the agenda of talks with Vietnam. For the United States, however, this matter has tended to rate far below concerns about American soldiers listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.

"We welcome this step, then, not as a sign of approval of a regime that still fails to assure the full rights of its people, but as a means of strengthening the needed dialogue, of making more effective our concerns for the people of Vietnam, and of moving forward in healing the wounds of war," said Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester, Mass., head of the bishops' Committee on International Policy.

Thomas Quigley, an adviser on international affairs for the U.S. bishops, said the Church believes formal relations will advance the cause of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. The same opinion was offered by exiled Vietnamese Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan of Ho Chi Minh City, in a talk given to a New York audience during his June visit to the United States.

But the manner in which Vietnamese authorities have dealt with Archbishop Thuan, who has been co-administrator of the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, since 1975, is an obvious example of the government's strict control over religion in the country.

Archbishop Thuan spent 13 years in a Vietnamese prison camp. He gained permission to visit the Vatican in 1991, only to find that it was a trick: the government refused to let him back into the country.

Last November, the Vatican named Archbishop Thuan vice president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The appointment was generally taken as a sign that the Vatican does not think the archbishop will be able to return anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the largest Catholic community in the country, the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City, with 500,000 Catholics, remains without a bishop, following the death early last month of 84-year-old Archbishop Paul Nguyen Van Binh.


Bole is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor

This article was taken from the July 30, 1995 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, Huntington, In 46750.

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