The Authority’s gesture of openness in striking contrast to the theme of the seminar, dedicated to education in Catholic schools. Vietnam’s Catholics are banned from being involved in the educational sector.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - For the first time ever a meeting of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Asia (FABC) has been held in Vietnam. The government allowed a seminar to take place in Ho Chi Minh City October 22 to 26attended by 40 cardinals and bishops from Bangladesh, India, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand, and of course Vietnam.

The authority’s gesture of openness however, rendered more stark the contradiction with the theme of the seminar, which was "Catholic Schools and Catechetical Centres as venues of Eucharistic Faith Formation in Asia" since the Vietnamese Church is prohibited from taking part in the field of education.

It should, however, be noted that since its first meeting held in Manila in 1970 in the presence of Pope Paul VI, despite active involvements of Vietnamese bishops in its activities, FABC has never been able to hold any meetings in Vietnam. The meeting was opened with a Mass celebrated by Japanese Archbishop Francis Xavier Osamu Mizobe, SDB, while the auxiliary bishop of Saigon gave a homily on the mission of Catholic evangelization. Of particular significance in the course of the work, the intervention of Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man of the host diocese, who explained "The education for Christians to live the mystery of the Holy Eucharist in the socio-economic context of Vietnam today”.

The objective of the seminar was the sharing of information, ideas, innovations and technology tools in the administration, education strategies and social activities of Catholic schools. The Vietnamese participants did their best to contribute to the work, but their interventions could not be in line with those of others, since for decades Catholics have been barred from the field of education, which is monopolized by the state. In North Vietnam, Catholic teaching was banned in 1954 with the seizure of power by the Communist Party. The same happened in 1975 in the South. At that time, Catholics had more than two thousand educational facilities, from kindergarten to the highest levels of education.

Since then, schools across the country are managed solely by the state. On several occasions, especially in major cities, the bishops have called for Catholics to be allowed participate in the educational system, citing the alarming data on the current situation. They warn that Vietnamese children are deprived of the right to have an adequate, effective and honest education.

The statistics show, in fact, the very low level of human and financial resources invested information, due to the lack of recognition by authorities of the importance of the "human factor" and the fundamental role that education plays in socioeconomic development. According to data from the General Office of Statistics, from 2000 to 2006 the state investment for education has increased from 762 million dollars per year to around 2.2 billion dollars, with a significant increase in the last two years. But this represents only 9% of the budget and over 80% of these funds are used to pay the salaries of professors. On average they range from 60 to 100 dollars per month. The remaining 20% of funds for education, they say, tend to end up in the pockets of officials. Today, finally, the government provides for only 50% of school expenses and only for the first five years of school.

The low wages results in an increasing number of professors pushing their students to attend private classes. This increases the income of teachers and expenditure of households. “Those who do not participate in private lessons - adds Sister Marie Nguyen - are said to be discriminated against. For them, in particular, it is difficult to follow lectures and pass exams”.

The phenomenon has become so common as to have aroused the constant condemnation of Church leaders. Cardinal Pham Minh Man, for example, has criticized “the scourge of dishonesty and fraud in the school environment”. Sister Marie Nguyen, who is a social psychologist, shows how "the cost of tuition is a great burden on students and their families. In a country that has 24 million people living in extreme poverty, number of kids who have never attended school or have left school is growing at an alarming rate”. And, she then points out, the phenomenon is particularly worrying among girls.

Nevertheless, although there have been changes in the social and economic areas, education remains resolutely hostile to Catholicism. Students, regardless of their religious beliefs, are forced to enter into associations organized by the Communist Party and regularly attend their meetings. In Vietnam, moreover, there is no great distinction between education, propaganda and indoctrination. All three have the common aim of training future generations to atheism, to obey and fervently support the party. To this end, teachers are encouraged to use their classes as an opportunity to attack religion and whatever goes against the policies of the Party. The schools regulations state that no less than 10% of the classes of all grade levels must be devoted to Marxism-Leninism, but in practice the ideology and politics permeate teaching and the entire school life.

The system is often criticized by the students themselves, who complain about the lack of preparation that it gives to children and young people living in an environment subject to rapid social and economic changes and that they learn purely academic theories that are far from practical.

In this context, even if Catholics schools are prohibited, since February this year, the largest Catholic university in the United States, Loyola University Chicago, run by Jesuits, is the first American university to establish its representative office in Vietnam, in partnership with the Ministry for Education and Formation. Through this office, Loyola wants to work in three areas of special needs: English as a second language, training for health professionals; leadership programs, aimed at professionals and managers; Vietnam study abroad programs for American youth. The first service offered by Loyola, the Vietnam Service Learning Program was launched this summer.