A Persecuted Church Left to Fend for Itself

Vietnam’s government is trying to quietly crush a thriving Catholic Church. Will the U.S. do anything more than be ‘concerned’?

Redemptorist priest at prayer inside Thai Ha Church
Redemptorist priest at prayer inside Thai Ha Church (photo: Simon Roughneen)

HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam has the second-largest population of Catholics in Southeast Asia after the Philippines. The Communist Party has always made things difficult for the Church there, and that pressure seems to be increasing again after a brief thaw.

On Nov. 6, Cu Huy Vu, a lawyer who sought to defend six recently jailed Catholic villagers, was detained on charges of “propaganda against the state,” according to state television.

During the trial, the six, from Con Dau in central Vietnam, were denied a lawyer, after which Cu Huy Vu told the BBC that the verdict was pre-ordained. It is not clear if there is any link between Cu’s arrest and his attempts to defend the six.

But there has been a general crackdown on dissent in Vietnam ahead of the ruling Communist Party congress early next year. Prominent lawyers, journalists and activists have been arrested and jailed in recent months, while others remain under government surveillance.

Speaking in Hanoi last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States “remains concerned about the arrests and the curbs on religious freedom in Vietnam,” before she joined the country’s deputy prime minister in extolling growing U.S.-Vietnam trade and investment ties.

The Con Dau 6 were among 59 people arrested after clashes between around 500 Catholics and government agents at the parish cemetery of Con Dau in May. Catholics had conducted a funeral procession for an 82-year-old woman and tried to bury her in the cemetery, which had been seized by the local government to build a tourist resort.

Vigils for the detainees were held in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where people listened to a letter from Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, the president of the Vietnamese Bishops’ Peace and Justice Commission, which challenged the legality of the government’s property seizure. He asked why the government is “pushing the peaceful Con Dau parishioners into the current tragic situation, causing one death, many arrests, others facing total loss of properties.” Forty of the villagers fled to Thailand after the incident, where they are seeking refugee status.

The Con Dau case resonates in the Thai Ha parish, which was the residence of the papal nuncio in Hanoi until the government confiscated it in 1954. In 2008, large-scale prayer vigils took place here. Police used violence to disband the estimated crowds of 15,000 and, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, deployed thugs, with “some wearing the blue uniforms of the Communist Youth League, to harass and beat Catholic parishioners and vandalize churches.”

Undercover in the Jungle

Looking from the church gate at barbed-wire-topped walls, blocking access to what were previously church grounds, Le Quoc Quan, a parishioner at Thai Ha, points out that the church property has been whittled down to 1/14th of its size in 1954, when the country gained its independence from France.

Le was himself detained for three months, shortly after he returned to Vietnam in early 2007. A lawyer, he had been on a five-month fellowship in Washington at the National Endowment for Democracy.

As this reporter walked with a parishioner outside the church grounds during rush hour, edging though a narrow side street jammed with the crisscrossing tide of scooters and motorbikes taking commuters home from work, he was told that one should be wary of government agents keeping an eye on the church.

“They have surveillance around here,” said the parishioner, requesting anonymity.

The reporter was told that the government wanted a newly opened, U.S.-government-funded methadone clinic beside the church to increase the psychological pressure on the parishioners.

“The idea is to make people uncomfortable by having many drug addicts hang around at the church gates,” said Le Quoc Quan. One of the parish’s Redemptorist priests, who requested that his name not be used, said that there are other ploys being used, such as state representatives handing out government propaganda close to church property.

In parts of the countryside, the situation appears to be worse. “In Son Ha, they are not allowed to have a priest, so cannot have Mass,” the priest said. “The government does not recognize them as Catholics.”

Grinning with boyish bravado, he recounted going undercover in the jungles to meet Catholics who are denied access to a priest or to regular sacraments. “We try to find somewhere quiet in the forest, or in some village,” he said. “But we have to make sure we don’t get caught; otherwise the police will make it impossible for outsiders to get in and out of some of these places.”

The size of the Church in Vietnam is in dispute. Official figures give a Catholic population of just over 6 million, but that is perhaps an understatement.

“Church figures estimate that there are over 8 million Catholics now in Vietnam,” according to the Thai Ha priest, making up around 10% of Vietnam’s population.

Conversions in Thai Ha are on the upswing, as well, in keeping with the national trend. Thanh Chu, age 22, is one of 200 readying for her baptism, before she marries her Catholic fiancé.

“Before I started to come to the church, I had no religion,” she said, adding that “we heard a lot of anti-Catholic propaganda.” Now, under Le Quoc Quan’s direction, she works alongside dozens of other Catholic university students.

Some of these were behind the church, filling relief supplies of food and clothing to be sent to flood-hit areas in rural Vietnam, where more than 159 people have been killed over the past month.

The trials faced by the parish have led to more positive developments, all told.

“Fifteen thousand to 20,000 people come here for Mass every Saturday and Sunday,” said Le Quoc Quan. “Before the vigil started, we had three Masses each weekend; now we have 11.”

Register correspondent Simon Roughneen filed this story from Hanoi, Vietnam.