Catholic Persecution in Vietnam
(Remnant News Watch, 10/31/08)

Mark Alessio

Vietnam's prime minister has warned Roman Catholic leaders the communist state “will not tolerate mass protests by followers demanding the return of seized church land,” reports Radio Australia (Oct. 2, 2008):

Prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung criticized Catholic mass gatherings held in two parishes of the capital Hanoi in recent months, in talks with Vietnam Episcopal Council leader Bishop Nguyen Van Nhon. He told the bishop if those activities do not come to an end, they will have an adverse impact on the good ties between the state and the church and the relationship between Vietnam and the Vatican.

The land in question, two plots of land once owned by the Catholic Church, were seized by the Communist government in 1954. One plot is located near Thai Ha Church, near the center of Hanoi; the other is the site of the former Vatican Embassy, next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi’s largest church. Most of this land has been used to build a hospital and various industrial buildings. On September 19, 2008, the city commenced bulldozing the grounds of the former Vatican Embassy in preparation for the construction of a public park and library. Lay Catholics, priests, nuns and seminary students turned out to pray as construction began.

Protests by Catholics against the government's actions began last January, when thousands of Catholics gathered outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral to demand the return of Church property. As a result, mid-morning Masses at Thai Ha Church became so popular that crowds spilled-over to the outside, with many Catholics traveling there from nearby provinces. On August 15th, parishioners broke through a brick wall enclosing the former Embassy lot and placed therein Crucifixes, icons and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Vu Cong Long, the head of Hanoi’s Dong Da district police, stated that he would “bring to trial those who intentionally damaged property and provoked a disturbance of public order.” The legal penalties for anyone convicted include up to three years in jail for damaging or destroying property, and two to seven years for causing public disorder.

The Agence France-Presse news agency reported that, on August 28th Vietnamese police arrested four Catholics who had taken part in Masses and prayer vigils for the return of the seized land. “During the day, there aren’t that many people here, but in the evening there will be thousands,” said Fr. Nguyen Van Khai, 38, of Thai Ha Church, during a September Mass. “They don’t fear being arrested, or detained or dying. All they want — all we want — is justice, for the land that was taken from us to be returned.”

According to the Catholic News Agency (Oct. 2, 2008), a September 25, 2008 statement released by the Vietnamese Conference of Bishops “acknowledged that outdated and inconsistent policy in land law combined with national calamities of bribery and corruption had led to the injustice done on the Hanoi Catholics and many others throughout the country; and the media while serving for the interest of their owner, the state, have purposely distorted the story in order to victimize the victims once again.”

On October 1st a delegation of bishops met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to discuss the matter. At this meeting, the Prime Minister supported the actions of the city of Hanoi, reiterating the Communist Party line that only collective ownership of land would be recognized by the government. He also accused Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, a vocal opponent of the government’s position, of "having actions and words that had damaged his own reputation among the Vietnamese Catholic Community and the society as a whole, thus affecting the good relation between the archdiocese and Hanoi local government, and to the extent of between the Church and the state."

Comment: After the massive protest outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral last January, government officials promised that they would meet with Church leaders to discuss the issue. However, on September 18th Church leaders were told that the land would be turned into a park. Construction began the very next day.

On September 28th the Associated Press reported that “Communist authorities in Hanoi have threatened to take legal action against the city’s archbishop unless he immediately disbands illegal prayer vigils demanding the return of former church lands”:

The government campaign against Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet escalated over the weekend, with state television calling into question his patriotism in an apparent attempt to turn public opinion against him.

State-controlled newspapers on Monday quoted from a letter to Kiet by Hanoi Mayor Nguyen The Thao accusing the cleric of instigating unrest.

“Stop your illegal acts immediately or you will be dealt with according to the law,” Thao wrote. “You have a responsibility to persuade priests and parishioners to abide by the law.”

Before launching into his attacks against Archbishop Kiet at the October meeting, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung praised "the contribution of the Catholic community to the achievements of the country in recent years, as also during the first nine months of 2008." The Prime Minister visited the Vatican in 2007, supposedly a sign that Hanoi’s relations with the Catholic Church were “improving.” Is this improvement actual or apparent? It seems that the only benefit of such “improved” relations for the Communist Vietnamese government is that they can be used as a battering-ram. Remember that Tan Dung stated that continued protests by Catholics can have an “adverse impact” on relations between Vietnam and the Vatican.

On September 22, Michael Sullivan of National Public Radio reported that “Nguyen Tang Xuan, deputy chairman of the government’s religious affairs committee, says the church and state may yet work out a compromise.” Xuan also took the opportunity to accuse Hanoi’s Catholics of behaving like “a mob,” and stated that the Vietnamese government might consider relocating government land for the Church to use – “but not to own.”

In this matter, Vietnamese Catholics have been shown nothing but contempt by their government. Agence France-Presse has reported on the physical abuses of priests and peaceful protesters by security forces. On the evening of September 21, police stood by, doing nothing, as a gang attacked Thai Ha Church. According to eyewitnesses, the gang, chanting slogans threatening to kill priests, religious, the faithful and the archbishop, threw stones and destroyed every statue of the Virgin Mary they could lay hands on. According to a letter of complaint written by Fr. Khoi Phung and addressed to the People’s Committee of Hanoi City and local police agencies, “Everything happened clearly in front of a large number of officials, police, security personnel, anti-riot police, and mobile police – those who are in charge of keeping security and safety in the region. But they did nothing to protect us.”

In addition, the government media has been used to attack the Catholic Church. Catholic World News reported (Sept. 19, 2008) on the Vietnamese government’s use of paid agitators masquerading as priests and lay Catholics in order to discredit the Church. On one occasion, a “Church dissident” was quoted speaking out against the protesters. The only trouble is, the quoted individual had been dead for few years at the time of his “interview.” Contemporary Communism – a class act all the way.

With 6 million Catholics, Vietnam boasts Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the Philippines. Unfortunately, all religion in the country is under state control. In February of 2008, the Catholics of Ia Grai, a district in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, were threatened with legal action if they celebrated Mass on the Feast of Tet (the first day of the Lunar New Year). Bùi Minh Sen, the chairman of the local People’s Committee, claimed that, since Tet was neither a Catholic festival nor a Holy Day of Obligation, a special permit was required in order to celebrate Mass on that day.

May Our Lady of La Vang, who first appeared to the Catholics of Vietnam in 1798, and has been their special protector in times of persecution, watch over these souls as they once again square off against the enemies of Christ.



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