Vietnam’s Catholics are well used to persecution. But the latest stand-off with the clergy and parishioners of Hanoi has prompted a fearful Government into a far more brutal crackdown than has been seen for some time.

By J.B. An Dang

On 19 September 2008, before daybreak, while the residents of Nha Chung St in Hanoi were still asleep, hundreds of police gathered in front of the house of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. They quickly set up roadblocks and barbed wire, denying access to the archbishop’s residence, to St Joseph’s Cathedral and to all roads leading to the former nunciature nearby, a building seized by the communists in 1959, since converted to a nightclub, and in the past year the focus of prayer vigils demanding its return to the Church.

Police dogs were brought in to help isolate the area and make sure no one got in or out. Blocking devices were in evidence, preventing communication by mobile phone or any other means between the district and the outside world. When it was light, bulldozers moved on to the site of the former nunciature, and construction workers and hundreds of police began demolishing the buildings on the site.

As the cathedral’s bells started ringing to alert and summon parishioners, state-controlled television and radio announced that the Government had decided to demolish the buildings to make room for a public playground.

The government crackdown marks its latest response to the prayer vigils that started at the former nunciature last December. The assembled Catholics would pray the Rosary, sing hymns, or stand for hours in silent prayer. The vigils spread to two other parishes in the archdiocese, Ha Dong, and Thai Ha, where the return of the confiscated Redemptorist monastery is demanded.

The events of 19 September mark the most dramatic episode so far in an ongoing confrontation between Catholics and Government, a continuing stand-off that explodes from time to time into violence. At the start of this year the Government issued an ultimatum demanding that the prayer vigils be halted by 5 p.m. on Sunday 27 January, threatening “extreme actions” for any disobedience. As a consequence, more people simply joined in the protests.

On 1 February the Government appeared to offer a concession. Hours after the publication of a letter dated 30 January from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, to Archbishop Kiet, urging Hanoi's Catholics to avoid confrontation with police, and promising to press the Government for the restoration of the nunciature, the Government, through its appointees the Hanoi People’s Committee, agreed in principle to return the nunciature to the archdiocese if the vigils ceased.

Six months later, it became clear to the Catholics that they had been duped. In early August the Government threatened “extreme actions” against priests, depicting them as “criminals” who were inciting parishioners to stand up against the Government, assemble and pray illegally in public areas, and disturb public order. The campaign, designed to turn public opinion against the Church, stepped up a level on 28 August, when police arrested eight Catholics at the Thai Hai Church of the Redemptorists, and used electric batons to disperse a vigil demanding the release of those arrested.

On Sunday 31 August Fr Peter Nguyen Van Khai stepped out of the Thai Ha church carrying a monstrance in a Eucharistic procession around the ground of the disputed Redemptorist Monastery. A policeman jumped on him, spraying the priest, altar boys and other people nearby with tear gas at close range causing many to faint and vomit. He withdrew after throwing a tear gas grenade into the crowd. About 30 parishioners, most of them women and children, suffered badly from tear gas inhalation, at least 20 needing hospitalisation.

On 20 September, the day after the bulldozing of the nunciature, Archbishop Kiet went to the office of the Hanoi People’s Committee to protest. In the government-run New Hanoi newspaper of 22 September Nguyen The Thao, chairman of Committee, threatened legal action against the archbishop for saying that “we feel humiliated to be carrying a Vietnamese passport”. Archbishop Kiet had actually said: “Travelling overseas often we feel humiliated carrying a Vietnamese passport because wherever we go we are always examined scrupulously [by customs agents]. We feel so saddened by that. Our desire is for our country to become stronger so that we can be as proud as Japanese citizens who can pass through anywhere without being inspected. Koreans already enjoy that privilege.”

The condensing of the paragraph marked the beginning of a smear campaign against the archbishop, while his parishioners have been harassed regularly since by both uniformed and plainclothes police. Hundreds of thugs, some in the blue shirts of the Communist Youth League, have destroyed church statues, cursed and spat at parishioners, and gathered at the archbishop’s residence to shout death threats to the archbishop and the priests.

Thugs ransacked Thai Ha church, desecrating in particular the revered statue of the Holy Mother placed on a makeshift altar in the grounds, and dumping used motor oil and other foul smelling liquid on to the altar. These events happened in daylight as public officials and police looked on. Meanwhile a sophisticated network of cameras and eavesdropping devices has been installed all around the archbishop’s residence. Within days of the 19 September crackdown a park filled with grass, shrubs and blooming flowers has been created at the site of the nunciature, at a speed no major national project has seen before.

Vietnamese bishops released a joint statement on 26 September, signed by the president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, that read: “Archbishop Kiet of Hanoi, and the priests of the parish of Thai Ha have not done anything against current canon law.” The statement went on to voice the bishops’ opinion on the roots of the conflict, identifying the outdated land law that contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in denying the right to own private property; the state media which have spread doubts and mistrust instead of mutual understanding and unity; and the tendency of the Government to use violence against people crying out for justice.

Vietnamese Catholics are well used to persecution since the fall of the North to the communists in 1954 and the South in 1975. They draw inspiration most of all, perhaps, from the example of Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan who in 1975, at the age of 47 and with a rosary in his pocket as his one possession, was sent to a communist re-education camp. He spent 13 years in prison, including nine in solitary confinement and total darkness, before his release in 1988. He was made a cardinal in 2001 before dying in 2002 after a long illness caused by his time in prison. “For years, I had seen nothing other than a thick darkness in absolute solitary confinement. Had I lost my hope in the Lord, I should have gone crazy,” he wrote in his book “The Road of Hope”.

The Government in Hanoi is well aware of the kind of people it is dealing with.