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The Church in Vietnam: Present limitations on religious freedom

A short article for journalists who want to know the truth of religious freedom and all the sufferings of the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
vncatholic bishops

 

A short history

Vietnam was divided into two quite distinct states for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, and again between 1954 and 1975. The division has deeply affected the Catholic Church in the two areas. With the flight of hundreds of thousands of Catholics to south in the mid-'50s, the Church in the North lost between one third and one half of its membership. Those who remained lived under extremely harsh treatment by the atheist regime. They were denied access to education and decent jobs, and treated as second-class citizens. Seminaries were closed. The ordination, appointment and transfer of priests were severely restricted. Many Church properties have been confiscated and administered by the State on the grounds that they were needed for social purposes. Consequently, church-going became all but impossible in many regions, resulting in many people abandoning their faith.

The Church in South Vietnam, meanwhile, enjoyed much more freedom and experienced an unprecedented growth. It ran prestigious institutions of education from kindergarten to tertiary level. Many prominent hospitals were run under Catholic Church auspices. There was a tide of vocations to the priesthood and religious life flourishing in all dioceses. Catholics came to occupy more than their share of leadership positions, so much so that resentment and anti-Catholic feelings grew sharply among many believers of non-Christian religions. All these underwent significant changes in 1975.

From 1975 until roughly the early 1990s, there continued to be severe discrimination against Christian believers. Many Church properties were confiscated or transferred to the State under coercive conditions. The Church's ministries were severely hampered, seminaries could not function, and many dioceses remained without bishops.

When the Vietnam’s war was coming to an end, Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan was appointed to administer the archdiocese of Saigon. But instead of being allowed to take his see, he was arrested and held in solitary confinement for thirteen years. After being released, he was allowed to travel for meetings in Rome but, once there, was told he could not return. Later he was the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and was made a cardinal in 2001. He died of cancer in a clinic in Rome, Italy, at the age of 74.

The Archdiocese of Saigon was vacant for five years after the death of Archbishop Paul Nguyen Van Binh. The logjam was only broken in 1998 with the installation of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man who was made a cardinal in October 2003.

The Archdiocese of Hue had been vacant for six years when Archbishop Stephen Nguyen Van The was re-appointed Administrator in 1994 and was later able to be installed as archbishop.

Present limitations on religious freedom

With the introduction to open market, the gradual opening to the West, especially to the United States, beginning with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in February 1994, the normalization of relations in July 1995, and the accession into WTO in November 2006; there has been a number of positive developments in religious liberty. The situation of the Church in Vietnam was improved due in good part to the persistent efforts of the Holy See to maintain an official dialogue with the authorities, including a more or less annual visit to Vietnam of a Vatican delegation.

However, there can be no denying that religious freedom is severely limited in today's Vietnam. It is fair to say that persecutions are still on their way especially in the rural areas such as in the North and in the Central Highlands. There are severe restraints on religious freedom, which Catholic bishops in Vietnam repeatedly speak out on, calling for the government to relax specific restrictions. After each meeting of the episcopal conference, the bishops typically send a memorial of the meeting to the Prime Minister, in which they list the areas of great concerns. Among these, typically are the following:

1) The long delays in securing the appointment of bishops and diocesan administrators. This has always been a central point on the agenda in the bilateral meetings between the Vatican and the Vietnam government.

2) The restrictions on the ordination, appointment and transfer of priests. This is a major sticking point. Even after completing all requisite studies for ordination, candidates are often made to wait years before beginning their ministry.

3) The carrying out of the Church's normal activities, involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives, are all subjected to approval by the civil authorities.

4) Recruitment of seminarians is severely restricted; only a certain number may be enrolled in the diocesan seminaries each year, and candidates and even their families are subjected to scrutiny.

5) Publications and other media are severely restricted. The Church has no access to the mass media.

6) Many buildings that once belonged to the Church have been administered by the State on the grounds that they were needed for social purposes. Even when their purposes are no longer met, the buildings are seldom returned to their owners. Recently, it is reported that they have been used as financial resources for government officials. Needless to say, activities held in these premises often disrupt religious services in the nearby churches.

7) Local governments are still pursuing policies of religious persecution for the ethnic minorities, especially the Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and the Thai, Hmong and Muong in the Northern Mountains.

8) The communist government has severely restricted all the Church activities in education and keeps pursuing an anti-Christian education policy. In text books, the Church has been systematically described as ‘evil’ and ‘obstacles’ to the progress of the society. Also, relations between the Catholic Church and the government remain tense due partly to ongoing efforts from the government to distort history in order to falsely accuse the Church of being ally to foreign invaders in 19th and 20th centuries.

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