BANGKOK — Weeks after the arrest and jailing of 12 Catholics in Vietnam for allegedly “attempting to overthrow the government,” it has emerged that American officials believe that Catholics who disagree with the communist regime are being “thrown under the popemobile.”
The colorful image headlined one of a tranche of recently leaked diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. According to the same document, dated Nov. 25, 2009, then-Holy See under secretary for Relations With States Archbishop Pietro Parolin (now the Holy See representative in Venezuela) “sharply criticized” former Hanoi Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet over his handling of land-rights disputes with city officials — remarks which U.S. officials speculated contributed to the archbishop’s subsequent resignation.
In 2008, Hanoi’s Thai Ha Church was the scene of 15,000-strong prayer vigils to try to save the church grounds — the former residence of the papal nuncio — from confiscation by the state. However, the meetings were forcibly broken up by police and security forces in the form of state-sponsored gangs, with most of the church grounds subsequently transformed into a public park.
Later that year Vietnam’s bishops visited the Vatican, and Pope Benedict XVI instructed the group to “make personal sacrifices, show restraint in disagreements with the government and to obey the law,” according to the same U.S. diplomatic cable. Vietnamese law makes it an offense to question the authority of the one-party state or to call for democratic elections, among other things, and the country’s commitment to freedom of worship has been widely questioned.
In a cable issued by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, dated Dec. 12, 2009, Ambassador Miguel Diaz gave the assessment that “Holy See priorities in Vietnam are to protect religious freedom and progressively expand it, to resolve the outstanding property disputes between the Church and the government, and, when conditions permit, to establish diplomatic relations in order to protect and expand the Catholic Church in Vietnam with a formal diplomatic presence. By confronting the GOV (Government of Vietnam) so forcefully on property issues alone, Archbishop Kiet may have put at risk the other long-term Vatican goals.”
Soon after that cable was sent, in a landmark meeting, Pope Benedict XVI hosted Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet in December 2009. While full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam were not established, “it was agreed that, as a first step, a non-resident representative of the Holy See for Vietnam will be appointed by the Pope,” according to a subsequent Vatican press release.
In a separate U.S. cable prior to Triet’s meeting with Pope Benedict, Vatican officials apparently “told the Hanoi Archdiocese that they are bullish about normalizing relations.”
However, the same cable quoted Father Thomas Nguyen Xuan Thuy, chief of financial and administrative affairs of the Hanoi archbishop’s office, who said many of the country’s Catholics distrusted the Vietnamese authorities, remarking that they had “been lied to by the communist government for over 50 years.” Putting into broader context the land disputes that seemingly poisoned the relationship between Hanoi officials and the former archbishop, Father Thuy said he believed that normalization of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam would corner local Catholics “into silence in their long-running land disputes.”
The U.S. delegation in Hanoi believed the former archbishop to be “a realist” who did not want to get in the way of normalization of relations between the Holy See and Vietnam’s communist regime, and Archbishop Kiet told the U.S. ambassador, Michael Michalak, in February 2009 that “I have told the government that I will serve wherever asked by the Church.”
However, it seems the Vietnamese government was obdurate in its antipathy toward the former Hanoi archbishop. According to another cable, Archbishop Kiet was likely to be successor-in-line to Cardinal Pham Minh Man in Ho Chi Minh City, who is now 76, if Archbishop Keit had retained his position in Hanoi. According to the cable, “there was real concern within the Conference of Catholic Bishops that the GVN would reject Kiet’s appointment to cardinal.”
If true, that would contradict views expressed in another cable by Archbishop Eitenne Nguyen Nhu The and the auxiliary bishop of Hue, Francois Xavier Le Van Hong, who told the American deputy ambassador that the situation in Vietnam differed from China, with the Hanoi government taking a hands-off approach to high-level Church appointments.
The plight of Catholics in Vietnam, which has the second-highest Catholic population in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, has long been a concern, with a U.S. State Department report released as recently as Sept. 13 slating Hanoi for continued abuses of religious freedom
In July and August 2011, 12 Catholics were arrested in the Vinh Diocese, south of Hanoi, for allegedly “attempting to overthrow the government,” an accusation leveled at hundreds of detained opposition and religious figures who dare question the authority of the one-party state. In the same diocese, half a million people reportedly protested the beatings of co-religionists by security police in July 2009. The 12 are being held incommunicado at three locations around the country, according to Le Quoc Quan, a Catholic lawyer based in Vietnam’s capital.
Requests for comment on the arrests sent to the current archbishop of Hanoi, Pierre Nguyen Van Nonh, as well as the Vietnamese Justice and Peace Commission, went unanswered, while the office of Cardinal Pham Minh Man in Ho Chi Minh told the Register that the cardinal could not comment, as the case occurred in another diocese.
Le Quoc Quan is a communicant at Thai Ha Church. He told the Register that “many Fathers have held vigils in their parishes to pray for those arrested unlawfully,” referring to the Vinh Twelve. Among those praying might be some new converts and recently reinvigorated Catholics, as it appears the pressure put on the parish and subsequent 2008 vigils had a galvanizing impact on churchgoers. This correspondent visited the parish in October 2010 and was told by Le Quoc Quan that “15 to 20,000 people come here for Mass every Saturday and Sunday.”
“Before the vigil started, we had three Masses each weekend; now we have 11,” said the lawyer, numbers confirmed by one of the Thai Ha Redemptorist priests, who asked that his name not be used.
One non-Catholic dissident and writer, Bui Thanh Hieu, began writing about the 2008 protests and ensuing clampdown by the government, later to be jailed. He is now free and, according to U.S. cables, preparing to convert to Catholicism. The Register asked Le Quoc Quan about this, and the lawyer replied in an email that Bui “is not yet converted to Catholicism,” but “goes to the church often.”
Mentioned numerous times in the U.S. embassy cables is possibly Vietnam’s best-known Catholic critic of the government, Father Nguyen Van Ly. Father Ly was returned to prison July 25, despite ill-health, a decision that came just before the arrest of the Vinh Twelve.
He has spent a total of 16 years in jail, due to his role in Vietnam’s proscribed political opposition movement. In another embassy cable, drafted after American officials visited him in detention, the aging priest’s “spirits remain high, quipping that he has come to consider prison as his ‘official office.’” According to the cable account, “he wakes up every morning at 3am and prays, reads the Bible, and recites Mass three times before the prison’s morning wake-up bell sounds; he recites his prayers and reads the Scriptures eight times a day.”
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia on a roving basis.