A cross destroyed, a parish under siege: is anti-Catholic repression on the rise in Vietnam?

Last May, parishioners at rural Dong Chiem Parish in Vietnam raised a tall, concrete cross on a nearby hilltop long revered as a cemetery.

The local civil authorities weren’t pleased. On Jan. 6, at three in the morning, they moved in with explosives and blew the crucifix to rubble.

Parishioners who tried to stop the destruction were beaten back and hit with tear gas as they prayed on their knees for an end to the violence. But the worst was yet to come.

As grieving parishioners poured out to defend the property rights of their parish and their right to worship on church ground held for more than 100 years, hundreds of security men surrounded Dong Chiem and sealed it off from the outside.

Father Te Van Nguyen: “If people don’t raise their voice, the situation will get worse.”
A Redemptorist brother who arrived to support the demonstration was beaten unconscious, a novice from Vinh was chased down and attacked, a priest was threatened, a journalist attempting to reach the hill was assaulted, the parish staff was interrogated and the authorities harassed the demonstrators through loudspeakers.

Images sent abroad by amateur photographers who defeated the cordon showed the bloodied face of the Redemptorist and the faces of church women weeping with grief.

The defenders, aided by youth from nearby Hanoi, were routed Jan. 24 when they were forced to removed bamboo crosses they had sown on the hill to replace the demolished crucifix.

Among Catholics in Vietnam and Vietnamese Catholics abroad, the Dong Chiem incident was not a merely local event. They fear that the incident signals a growing threat to four centuries of freedom of worship.

Dong Chiem followed similar, though less severe, clashes in Loan Ly, Thai Ha and Bau Sen parishes. The previous incidents centered on the parishes defending their property rights against government claims.

Dong Chiem also followed last November’s surprise resignation request of Hanoi’s 57-year-old Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, who had been the target of government accusations of instigating land law violations. The prelate remains in place today, and the Vatican has not confirmed the request, said Emily Nguyen, assistant to Father John Nghi Tran, who directs the Southern California-based VietCatholic News Agency.

“It’s a step up of violence against Christianity,”Nguyen said. “The Dong Chiem incident is different from the rest. It involves violence against the symbol of Christianity.”

Church leaders in Poland, France, Australia, Canada and the United States, as well as the Redemptorist Superior General in Rome, have responded to Dong Chiem with moral and sometimes financial support for Vietnamese Catholics.

Vietnamese Catholics face “a brutal and dramatic persecution brought by the Vietnamese government,” Father Paul Van Chi Chu of the Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media wrote Feb. 1 in a letter to Church leaders in Poland.

The Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins, in a Jan. 28 letter to Vietnam’s ambassador to Canada, said he was deeply concerned about the increasing persecution of Catholics. He called the attacks on peaceful citizens at Dong Chiem “very sad, and so unnecessary.”

In San Francisco, the Vietnamese Catholic community that worships weekly at Holy Name Parish held a prayer vigil for peace and justice in Vietnam and took up a second collection that raised $500 for the Vietnamese Catholic Federation in Washington, D.C.

“If people don’t raise their voice about freedom of religion, the situation will get worse,” said Father Te Van Nguyen, a Vietnam-born priest who is a parochial vicar at St. Brendan Parish in San Francisco and the archdiocesan liaison to the Vietnamese Catholic community.

The Church in Vietnam is 400 years old and owns many valuable properties, Father Nguyen said. He said some of these properties are attractive to the government for expanding business and tourism.

“One by one, step by step, they will slowly limit whatever Church property they want to take away from the Church and the government will take over the property and they will build something to make money,” said Father Nguyen, adding that the repression at Dong Chiem was the worst the country has seen in 20 years.

Tensions over land use have been escalating as both the Church and the communist regime assert their economic rights.

In 2008, Hanoi city officials announced that they would turn the site of the former Papal Nuncio’s residence into a city park. In 2009, a monastery in An Giang Province and a convent in Vinh Long were torn down. Today, a Catholic community at seaside Da Nang is in the way of a possible resort development.

The Church and Vietnam’s communist regime share a complicated relationship. Catholics and members of other religious organizations enjoy freedom of worship, although they must concede the government’s prominent role in overseeing their activities.

U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009 presented a generally improving picture of religious freedom in Vietnam. The report said the government has supported the growth of Catholic seminaries and the training of priests abroad and is encouraging diplomatic relations with the Vatican and the ordaining of new bishops.

But in a statement in January, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed alarm about a rise of repression in Vietnam. The commission asked President Obama to review its policy toward Vietnam in light of deteriorating human-rights conditions by a government that has taken active steps to repress free speech, democracy and religious freedom, the commission wrote.

“The (Communist) Party shows this two-faced approach to the Catholic Church,” Scott Flipse, the commission’s director of East Asian and Pacific programs, said in an interview. “Freedom of worship has expanded and Catholics are flourishing as a religious community, but there’s this continued disconnect over long-standing privileges of property and the ability to train seminarians.”

A Catholic priest, Father Phan Khac Tu, showed the two sides in an interview posted on the Vietnam Foreign Press Center’s website Jan. 15. The priest is deputy chairman and general secretary of the Vietnam Committee for Catholic Solidarity.

“Religious practices in Vietnam have increasingly enjoyed respect and Catholics have been given convenient conditions to conduct their religious activities,” he said.

At the end of the article Father Tu was asked to comment on the view that some outside political forces are taking unfair advantage of religion to sabotage national unity.

“Anyone found committing wrongdoings in the name of religion must be strictly punished,” he said.

The growing confidence of Vietnam’s 6 million to 8 million Catholics is a challenge to a regime that is coping with intra-party tensions as well as it approaches the 11th National Party Congress next year. Although Catholics represent less than 10 percent of the Vietnamese population, Catholicism has revived in many areas, with newly rebuilt or renovated churches in recent years and growing numbers of people who want to be religious workers, according to the U.S. State Department.

Catholics are “more confident, connected, wordly,” Flipse said. “The population under 35 is 66 percent of the population. They’re looking at a world where their relatives are in California.”

Flipse said that when he asked Vietnamese officials about Dong Chiem, he was told it was a zoning issue: The cross was removed to keep the rule of law in construction regulations.

“The question is, why does it take a division of police? And why was there violence when people protested?” Flipse asked.

Cam Nguyen, a native of North Vietnam and a member of the Vietnamese Catholic community in San Francisco, has some possible answers.

“What they are afraid of is Catholics throughout the nation have banded together for more than a year, demanding human rights, demanding the anti-corruption activities of the government, demanding socioeconomic opportunities,” he said.

Catholics are more in touch within Vietnam, and internationally, than ever before.

“People are getting more connected, can afford more freedom and are bumping up against government restrictions,” Nguyen said, predicting more demonstrations such as Dong Chiem.

And the stand at the parish that built a hilltop cross is not over, he said.

“There have been quite a few young people saying, ‘We are going to make this hill the hill of crosses,”’ Nguyen said.