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Vietnam’s communist authorities have upped the ante in an ongoing dispute with the Catholic Church by calling for the removal of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi.
BY SIMON ROUGHNEENRegister Correspondent
SINGAPORE — Vietnam’s communist
authorities have upped the ante in an ongoing dispute with the Catholic Church.
Now, they’re calling for the removal of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of
According to the state-run Vietnam
News Agency, Nguyen The Thao, chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, told
foreign diplomats Oct. 15 that “a number of priests, led by Archbishop Ngo
Quang Kiet, took advantage of parishioners’ beliefs and their own low awareness
of the law to instigate unrest.”
The unrest he must have been
referring to is prayer.
Since late 2007, the archbishop has
led prayer vigils across the city, as Vietnam’s 6 million Catholics had been
protesting the government’s moves to turn the former apostolic nunciature in
Hanoi into a public park.
Last month, however, the
government’s reaction to the vigils turned violent, with riot police, stun guns
and tear gas used against the gatherings.
Father Peter Khai Van Nguyen is a
Redemptorist at the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi, site of one of the vigils and also
a location for government-confiscated Church land.
He said that “eight months after
promising to restore Church ownership of a building that once housed the office
of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi, Vietnamese authorities suddenly begun
demolishing the building, provoking the outrage of Catholic protestors and
drawing a heated protest from the city’s archbishop.”
Carl Thayer is a visiting fellow at
the Australian National University and is a longtime watcher of Hanoi’s
politics. “This land dispute has escalated and turned nasty,” he said. “The
state media have vilified and defamed key Catholic leaders. Officials have
organized gangs of revolutionary youth and military veterans to attack Catholics
holding peaceful prayer vigils and to deface religious statues.”
organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which is at odds with Catholic
teaching on abortion, have spoken out about the actions of the communist
authorities in Hanoi. In a statement released Oct. 4, Elaine Pearson, Human
Rights Watch’s deputy director in Asia, said, “This is the harshest crackdown
on Catholics in Vietnam in decades.”
Relations between the Church and
Vietnam are similar to those in China, where the government, not the Church,
determines state-run church appointments. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan
Dung visited the Vatican in early 2007.
The latest persecution of the Church
comes soon after Vietnam won plaudits for its relaxation of restrictions on
religious expression, presaging the country’s entry into the World Trade
Hanoi then won a U.N. Security
Council seat earlier this year, and it teamed up with China and Russia to veto
a Security Council resolution condemning Robert Mugabe’s brutal crackdown on
the Zimbabwean opposition after elections were held in the African country in
Nina Shea is a commissioner on the
U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan body set up
in 1998 to “monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
or belief abroad, as defined in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ and
related international instruments and to give independent policy
recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and the Congress.”
She said that “a clear example of
how trade trumped concern for religious freedom occurred in 2006 on the eve of
President Bush’s visit to Vietnam for an economic summit, when the State
Department removed Vietnam from its short list of the world’s worst religious
That move has more to do with
diplomatic and economic exigencies as U.S.-Vietnam trade expands than real
progress on religious freedom.
And Catholics are not the only
religious group under pressure. According to Shea, “Religious organizations
that resist government control of their leaders, religious texts, activities
and rites are banned and experience harsh oppression.”
The presence of the autonomous
Church is likely seen by the Communist Party as an intolerable challenge to
state authority at a time of economic weakness. Vietnam’s rulers have taken a
path somewhat akin to China, coupling selective free-market reforms with
continued political authoritarianism.
“Party conservatives are invariably
concerned about reforming too fast and provoking political instability,” Thayer
said. “Now that inflation has risen and social problems have arisen, such as
record strikes in the garment and textile industries, party conservatives are
once again voicing concerns about political stability. Any activism that is
pro-democracy or related to religious freedom is viewed as ‘part of the plot by
hostile external forces to overthrow the socialist regime.’”
In early October, the Communist
Party Central Committee held a summit meeting to discuss the growing economic
crisis and gave the party’s Politburo oversight of the economy until the end of
this year, taking policy out of the hands of the Dung government.
Protestant missionaries in Vietnam’s
north have also worried the Politburo, with conversions evoking the drift to
Catholicism promoted by French missionaries in the 1800s, which undermined the
then-Confucian elite in the mainly-Buddhist country.
Some Buddhist movements have also
been targets of the government’s ire. Arrests of religious leaders continue,
and in its most recent report on Vietnam, the U.S. Commission on International
Religious Freedom outlined its view “that in all of the most recent cases of
arrest, imprisonment and other detention, religious leaders and religious freedom
advocates had engaged in actions protected by international human rights
And Vietnam is playing hardball not
just with the Church. A prominent journalist was jailed for his role in
exposing a multimillion dollar corruption scandal in which aid money donated
from the World Bank and the European Union, among others, was used by senior
and middle-ranking transport officials to bet on soccer matches in England.
Nguyen Viet Chien, a reporter with
the daily newspaper Thanh Nien, was
sentenced to two years in jail for exposing the scandal, work which the courts
declared to be an “abuse of democratic freedoms.”
Other reporters, apparently eager to
appease the government after Chien’s incarceration, have begun concocting
stories that a majority of Vietnam’s Catholics are at odds with those attending
the prayer vigils, even as support gatherings spring up at Catholic churches
elsewhere in Vietnam.
Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh
Man, in a pastoral letter sent to all Catholic priests, religious and faithful
of the Archdiocese of Saigon, described the state-run media coverage of the
vigils as “serving the privileges of the powerful, and of parties, not the
common good of the nation.”
Long Le teaches Vietnamese studies
at the University of Houston. He outlined the government’s approach to freedom
“Vietnam promotes the country’s
religious traditions to draw foreign travelers to Vietnam’s cathedrals, temples
and pagodas, while religious groups are still being persecuted,” he said.
Cardinal Pham Minh Man said in a
statement: “There has been distorted or truncated information as in the land
dispute at the former apostolic nunciature. Coming from our desire to actively
contribute to the country’s stable and sustainable development, we would like
to share these thoughts with our fellow Christians and all people of good will
and sincere hearts.
“We firmly believe that when we
together work to build the country on the basis of justice, truth and love,
Vietnam our country will become more prosperous, bring happiness and wealth to
everyone and construct a better world.”
Simon Roughneen is based in
Papua, New Guinea.