05/01/2015, 00.00
VIETNAM – VATICAN
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Vietnam today, 40 years after the fall of Saigon

by Lee Nguyen
On 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese forces seized Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, thus ending the Vietnam War. Forty years later, the country has become a medium-size economic "tiger" in Asia and the world, a country with a capitalist economy behind a Communist facade, under a regime still bent on exerting tight social controls. There are some positive signs for the Church, but also acts of persecution, bans, and censorship, especially against bishops and priests. Yet, the country really needs the reconciliation Christians can bring to heal still present wounds and divisions.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Forty years after the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the Communist Party marked its anniversary yesterday by the largest ever military parade in the South to commemorate the day when their troops from the North captured the city and ended the Vietnam war and the America’s military involvement in a devastating conflict that left more than 3 million Vietnamese of both sides and roughly 60,000 American soldiers dead, with rifts remain deep and unresolved.

Speaking at the event in Ho Chi Minh City, which was then called Saigon and the capital of South Vietnam, the prime minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung condemned the “countless barbarous crimes” committed by the U.S. during the war, which “caused immeasurable losses and pain” to the Vietnamese people and the country.

News of the ‘Black April’ made headlines around the world 40 years ago; meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people, including numerous Catholics, risked their lives to flee the country in search of democracy and freedom during a decade later. Many have returned home recently to visit relatives and to do business in the country; many, however, have refused to come back until the dictatorship goes out from power.

It has changed much after decades of bitter wars when the country was plunged into severe poverty and isolation. The former enemies are now friends and hold diplomatic ties. Vietnam today, according to a recent Pew Research survey, has the single most positive views on capitalism than any country in the world, even more than in Germany, China, India, or the U.S. It is communism in name only, but the one-party Communist state still strictly controls the media and cracks down on political dissidents. Authority jails those who dare to challenge their domination, to speak out for democracy or religious freedom, including on social networks. Though the country is seeking U.S.’s approval to sign TPP Treaty; however, more than dozens of activists were convicted in faulty trials simply because they had peacefully voiced criticism of government policies. This tends not to decrease, and the Catholic Church in Vietnam faces its own difficulties since the South and the North became unified.

Hard time

After the reunification in 1975, the Communists in Hanoi turned to suppress religion with great force. They tightly controlled and monitored all forms of public assembly, including assembly for religious activities. The then coadjutor archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan of Saigon, later appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the Vatican and elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II, was jailed by the Communist government of Vietnam for 13 years, 9 years in solitary confinement just simply because he was a nephew of South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem.

Since 30 April 1975, many religious activities of the Church, including ministerial practice, seminary training, humanitarian, cultural, charitable and educational activities were limited and prohibited. Numerous properties of the Church such as hospitals, educational structures, churches, convents, monasteries, seminaries, charitable houses and other assets were seized. “Nearly 400 properties were confiscated just in Saigon”, revealed the archbishop emeritus of the archdiocese cardinal John Baptist Pham Minh Man in 2009. “The decline of priests from 414 to 226, faithful from 516,000 to 387,184 in the diocese”, he added.

The newly government implemented a ban for the Church to close its over 2000 educational institutions from kindergartens to higher education institutes in the South, including the Pontifical Institute of St. Pius X in Da Lat where the current cardinal of Hanoi and incumbent archbishop of Saigon, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam, along with other eight Vietnamese bishops used to study.

Caritas Vietnam was forced to shut down and banned from operating since 1976 until 2008. But Caritas Internationalis today is still not allowed to establish its office in the country.

The Church did not have facilities to assist its people: no schools for education or teaching Catechism, no hospitals for treatment, no charitable organizations to help the poor and the marginalized. The Catholic Church fortunately was not weakened by these losses.

The Church in a new age

The religious situation in Vietnam today has been eased very much compared to previous years ago. It is not difficult to see “a living Church” with all seats occupied not just for Sunday Mass, but also in weekdays in any parish through the country. Faithful can go for church services and freely to meet their pastors, they can gather in organizations for the lay apostolate and study catechism. Religious practice rate is very high at least in the Catholic Church.

Things seem to be loosened gradually. Some large religious gatherings and events were allowed.

In 2008, the government returned 52 acres of the confiscated land surrounding La Vang shrine in Quang Tri province to the Church. Local authority allowed huge gatherings up to a million every year at the shrine on 15 August to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. And a new shrine for Our Lady of La Vang, which is under construction, was originally expected to cost around US$ 25 million.

In December 2012, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences tenth plenary assembly on the occasion of its 40th anniversary with top churchmen around Asia and high ranking figures from the Vatican took place in Vietnam after approval from the government and acceptance of some restrictions on media from the organizers.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam in its final document at the annual conference in Ho Chi Minh City two weeks ago officially informed that the Church is to open its first Catholic university, which is called ‘Catholic Institute of Vietnam’, after having been kept out of the state-monopolized educational system for decades. And bishops sought ‘Pontifical’ status for the new institution from the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education.

The constitutional right of religious freedom, however, continues to be interpreted and enforced unevenly. In some areas, authorities allow relatively wide latitude to the Church. But in many other areas, the Church is sometimes subject to harassment and persecution from local officials. Corruption and bureaucratic impediments placed restrictions on Church’s freedom and growth. Many dioceses faced limitations in expanding training facilities, building new churches, publishing religious materials, exercising Catholic movements, and expanding the number of clergy and nuns in response to increased demand from reality.

Last month, the incumbent Saigon archbishop Paul Bui Van Doc at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday announced that the symbolic Notre-Dame basilica of Saigon accepted to undergo an official restoration in the coming months for the first time ever since its consecration on Easter in 1880. Otherwise, local authorities in Vinh and Kontum dioceses sent police and thugs to destroy worship places and assaulted faithful and clergy. In some rural areas, getting permit to build new churches is really a problem. 

The government nowadays has numerous sophisticated restrictions, deterrents, and prohibitions jeopardizing the Church. Communist government's velvet glove conceals an iron fist as the Catholic Church is considered the only influence besides the government, which is capable of co-ordinating mass demonstrations against them in an organized fashion in state-Church land disputes and other cases.

Earlier this year the central government warmly welcomed the news Pope Francis elevated senior prelate Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, archbishop of Hanoi, to the rank of cardinal. Vietnamese Communist Party “took advantage of Vatican’s move to advertise its religious policy on the occasion of the pastoral visit of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the Vatican prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to the country in January 2015”, a senior cleric who asked to remain anonymous told AsiaNews. He said, “The government tried to show concrete advancements on religious freedom in order to be recognized as a credible partner in the international community”.

In spite of that, the government often send officials from Government Committee for Religious Affairs and Ministry of Public Security to meet with bishops and congregation superiors to ask for action and cooperation to remove a bishop or a priest who they think as opponent to the regime.

Vinh Long diocese in southern Vietnam is currently vacant without a bishop since the late bishop Thomas Nguyen Van Tan, a prominent prelate who often opposed the government on land disputes, died on 17 August 2013. Some other Vietnamese prelates and clergy are well-known for their courage under government’s harassment like archbishop emeritus Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi who retired at the age 58 in 2010 cited “health reason” after enormous pressure from the authority; bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum; bishop emeritus Paul Mary Cao Dinh Thuyen of Vinh; bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, O.P. of Vinh; and the Redemptorists.

Despite the state-Church relations have been enhanced in the past few years with the Vatican’s first non-resident representative to Vietnam since 19 December 1975 and visits of top Vietnam’s leaders to the Vatican and their meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis in the hope of re-establishing diplomatic relations, the Catholics in Vietnam, however, still have undergone hardship and discrimination.

Vietnam government still keeps restrictions and control in the process of recruitment, training and ordination of candidates for priesthood. They retain the right to refuse episcopal appointment by the Holy See.

Rights and contributions of Catholics are not much appreciated by the state. The Church has no room in most scopes of the society, especially in education, healthcare and charity where it has potential and is invited to serve.

Catholic press in the country is being restricted itself with fear and dismay when they saw persecuted situation of their counterparts who works for Vietnam Redemptorist Media Institute. Hence, Catholic websites’ stories are just generally about religious news, mediations and reflections.

Hoai Pham, a professional Catholic journalist who administers a very popular site in Vietnam and is currently living in Saigon, told AsiaNews: “I have family here, and sometimes I am afraid of authority’s harassment if I write something critical”. Thus, Pham has “to do self-censorship” as “if I am arrested, nobody would help me”, he added.

It has been 40 years since the end of the war. Many of the wounds from the war are intangible on the surface. And yet, in a way, Ho Chi Minh City today breathes with capitalism, but a division is still visible when “mentioning the [Vietnam] war, a million people feel happy but another million feel miserable”, said former Vietnamese prime minister Vo Van Kiet.

Recalling what happened to learn that Vietnam could possibly be better and more prosperous if nobody is treated unfairly for their beliefs and opinions, as “the motherland belongs to us, the nation belongs to us, the state belongs to us, Vietnam belongs to us, not to Communists or any religious group or faction”, said once Kiet.

“I hope that in this Holy Year of Mercy new doors will be opened for national reconciliation and a good time to path new ways for change and cohesion in the country”, Pham said to AsiaNews.

As the time marches on, the Catholic Church in Vietnam has a long-term agenda and a constructive approach to engage, and it should sustain consistent support as well as maintain resources to help faithful “live the Gospel in the heart of the nation” for building a strong and just Vietnam.

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