12/10/2009, 00.00
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Vietnamese President Triet’s visit to the Pope raises hopes and fears among Vietnamese Catholics

Hopes to see the situation of the Church improve after much suffering are mixed with concern that the government might gain a lot without giving anything in exchange. Partial improvements in terms of religious freedom do not remove the fact that abuses and violence continue.
Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Tomorrow’s visit by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet to Pope Benedict XVI is raising hopes but also some fear among Vietnamese Catholics. In addition to possible announcements with regards to progress on the path towards diplomatic relations, or perhaps a papal visit to the country, many hope the Holy See might be able to obtain greater freedom for a Church that has greatly suffered in the past and still suffers today. At the same time, some are concerned that the Vietnamese government might gain international recognition based on its good relations with the Vatican without giving anything in exchange.

Since 1989, when Vatican delegations began making almost annual visits to Vietnam, freedom of religion has expanded to some extent.  A recent paper by Card Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City pointed out that after restrictions were imposed following unification under Communist rule in 1975, the local diocese was able to rebuild and now runs more than 190 facilities, including kindergartens, vocational schools, and various charities. It also boasts 180 seminarians and 300 candidates.

Yet, in the past two years state-owned media have attacked some bishops as “agitators”, accusing them of “inciting riots, falsely accusing the government, disrespecting the nation, breaking and ridiculing the law, and instigating followers to violate it.” Similar accusations have reappeared on the eve of the Pope’s meeting with President Triet.

Moreover, things do not stop there. On many occasions, Church property has been seized, whilst priests and lay people have been threatened or even violently attacked because they did not heed the authorities’ orders.

State-Church relations have been discussed at a seminar organised by the Saigon diocese on 28 November. On that occasion, the notion promoted by state media that Catholics have opted for open confrontation rather than dialogue with the state was openly rejected.

“We need concrete instructions from the Holy See when being confronted with sensitive issues in which a tiny mistake would cause enormous damages to the Church and the country,” Bishop Paul Bui Van Doc of My Tho said at the seminar.

In order to survive and develop, the Church in Vietnam has been left with no other alternative but to seek “a healthy collaboration” with the State through dialogue, a point reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI in his speech to Vietnamese bishops during their Ad Limina visit on 7 June this year. The question however is what the government means by collaboration,

After unification, a Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics” backed by the authorities was set up. During Christmas Mass in 1976, priests from the committee ignored the Prayer for the Pope. Obviously, their objective was to split the Vietnamese Church from Rome like in China,

Even today, whilst the Church is not authorised to have its own newspaper, the committee, which has a marginal impact on Catholics, continues to be publicly funded, its publications still on the attack against the Vatican and the Pope, ostensibly on behalf of the Church.

Another issue that affects State-Church “collaboration” is Church property. Following the government’s decision to adopt a market economy, the country has developed rapidly. This has pushed up exponentially the value of real estate.

On more than one occasion, starting with the saga of the apostolic delegation in Hanoi, local authorities have tried to seize Church property. When bishops and the lay people call on them to engage in a dialogue over such matters, they have tended to respond peaceful prayer vigils with repression, demolition and more or less disguised sales to private interests interested in building hotels or shopping malls. In some case, property seized from the Church was treated as gifts to the state, when in fact they were not.

There are nevertheless some positive signs on the horizon. In Son La, Catholics were finally able to say Mass and celebrate Christmas and Easter.  The paper by Card Pham Minh Man is already a significant step as it describes the situation of the Church in the country.

In 1975, Saigon (as the diocese was then known) had some 400 educational and healthcare facilities. Over time, they “disappeared” along with Catholic schools, which were “closed.” The net result was that young people could no longer be educated about the “doctrine and faith”. Similarly, “Catholic-run hospitals and charities were also shut down” as well, and the “organisations that ran them were dissolved.”

Consequently, pastoral activity changed; Catholics had to refocus on “Jesus Christ as the centre and apex of Christian life.” Christian families and communities began devoting more time to prayer.

Gradually, the humility of these witnesses of the Gospel began changing attitudes towards the Church. Hitherto seen from the outside as hostile, the Church came to be seen as an organisation that could serve the people and help in the nation’s development.”

“Today, the diocese has some 200 parishes with 5,289 members of pastoral councils, 6,254 Catechesis volunteers, 900 choirs, 25 lay apostolic associations with 90,000 members.”

“About 90 per cent of Catholics attend Sunday Mass and 100 per cent of children follow catechism till christening. The major seminar has 180 students and a propaedeutic class for 300 candidates.”

“The diocese has 85 religious and lay congregations and institutes. Religious communities have 5,040 men and women religious.”

“Over time, our diocese was able to reopen 190 facilities, including kindergartens, vocational schools and charities. This way, they can help the country develop, whilst coping with development’s darker side.”

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