Vietnam presents two faces to the world, writes Paul Keenan
Two recent events in Vietnam neatly illustrate current realities at play in the modern communist state.
On January 21, the country’s Catholic Bishops announced that classes at the long-planned theological institute in Ho Chi Minh City will commence this coming September. Based on details offered previously by the city’s Archbishop Paul Bui Van Doc, the first intake will see 100 students begin their studies in philosophy and theology.
The archbishop felt confident enough to declare the hope that this figure would climb to 1,000 in the years ahead, made up of faithful Catholics eager to earn bachelor’s degrees, licenses and doctorates in a list of disciplines to include psychology, the sciences, and canon law. A most positive development in a country where the Catholic Church was driven out of education (among other areas of life) with the communist takeover at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975.
Almost simultaneously, however, in the northern province of Vinh, an entirely different story was unfolding for representatives of the Church.
In the course of a visit by Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who was invited by the Vietnamese Bishops’ Conference to study religious life in a rapidly changing country, Cardinal Marx experienced first-hand the restrictive power of the communist authorities when he tried to visit the Diocese of Vinh, only to be denied access, without any explanation (this letter element being a violation of current Church-State procedures).
The action served on the one had to prevent the visiting cardinal and his delegation from visiting what has been described as the most troubling region in Vietnam for faith communities of all stripes, who are routinely harassed and worse (on December 31, human rights advocate Fr Anthony Dang Huu Nam, pastor of Tan Yen parish was allegedly beaten by a group of attackers). On the other hand, the impeding of such a high-profile Church leader represents a certain slippage of the mask that Vietnam has been presenting to the world of late as it seeks to convince the international community that it is a worthy member to be rewarded with trade deals and investment.
In April 2015, on the 40th anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam War, The Irish Catholic examined the nation’s record on religious freedom – the sub-bar of that piece stated that “the Church in Vietnam is growing but not yet secure”. That examination came just months after the far more cordial welcome afforded to Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Vatican prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, who arrived in a country keen to court the Vatican after so many years of cold war.
Cardinal Filoni’s visit was at that time the latest development towards much sought diplomatic relations (at least on the part of Rome), a drive which had previously seen Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visit the Vatican, once in 2007, and a second time in October 2014. President Nguyen Minh Triet paid his own official visit in 2009. It was closely followed by the elevation of Cardinal Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi at a consistory in February.
Based on developments since Cardinal Filoni’s reciprocal visit, however, this newspaper was correct in signalling that all is not yet ‘secure’ for the Church in Vietnam.
Certainly the move towards allowing the Church to re-enter the education sphere is of major significance, but it is one surrounded by other moves which have left Catholics dismayed and doubtful, in addition, it must be pointed out, to other faith communities who suffer similarly under oppressive laws – with forthcoming legislation, the Law on Belief and Religion, set to make matters worse.
This darker aspect to Vietnam was given voice earlier this month by the lobby group Association for the Defence of Religious Freedom, which published its latest findings on religious freedom in Vietnam, revealing that, while the year 2014 saw a total of 50 violations of religious freedom by government, the subsequent year of warm welcomes and diplomatic niceties saw exactly the same figure.
Both within the country and on the part of commentators externally, this is simply further evidence that the communist authorities continue to operate a bipolar system of rule; a zealous commitment to iron-fist control of all aspects of the state internally, but hungry for the capitalistic benefits to be had externally by such initiatives as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact which, after seven years of negotiation, finally came to fruition on February 4 with its signing by all parties in Auckland, New Zealand.
Thus, by playing the game of friendly relations (if not fully diplomatic) Vietnam stands to reap the monetary benefits, while keeping Cardinal Marx from fully accessing the truth behind the veil, where land grabs continue to punish religious communities, Catholic bloggers are arrested (and allegedly tortured), and a system of laws ensures that the Catholic Church is kept firmly on a leash.
By way of further illustration, in 2015 the human rights group Freedom House re-examined Vietnam’s overall record (to the end of 2014) in terms of human rights, and, on its scale of 1-7, one being the best and seven the worst, Vietnam scored a risible six for freedom, five for civil liberties and seven in terms of political freedom. Freedom House said: “Religious freedoms remain restricted. All religious groups and most individual clergy members are required to join a party-controlled supervisory body and obtain permission for most activities.
“Those who fail to register their activity with the state are often arrested and harassed. The Roman Catholic Church selects its own bishops and priests, but they must be approved by the government. Christians continue to be persecuted, particularly outside of major cities… The US Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that dozens of people are currently ‘detained for their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy in Vietnam’.”
The full scale of repressive measures which cannot be contained in this space, is worth examining at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/vietnam
On a purely Catholic Church level, AsiaNews, which monitors the situation in Vietnam, recently offered a brief roll-call of suffering prelates and clergy, “well-known for their courage under government’s harassment, like Archbishop emeritus Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi who retired in 2010 after enormous pressure from the authorities; Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum; Bishop emeritus Paul Mary Cao Dinh Thuyen of Vinh; Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, OP of Vinh; and the Redemptorists”.
Without doubt, the foremost victim of Vietnam’s regime for many remains Cardinal Van Thuan, the very definition of a prisoner of conscience, who suffered the harshest of imprisonments from 1975 before eventual exile.
Sadly, as the list above shows, he was not the last to suffer, and his story, far from being confined to an historical ‘moment in time’, is part of an ongoing narrative for the Church in Vietnam.
The simple fact is that the Vietnamese authorities continue to view religion as a societal nuisance to be controlled in the absence of effective measures to stamp it out completely.