When I visited Vietnam in 2006 I had a fair idea of what to expect from the authorities, but I was blown away by just how strict and tense the environment was. I was followed in the streets and intimidated by police and I’m now banned from returning to Vietnam - all for just meeting with people whose peaceful religious beliefs are deemed a threat by the country’s paranoid government.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Sadly the Vietnamese Government continues to ignore internationally agreed norms and continues to use fear and violence to excuse itself from criticism and to quash anyone who it suspects of ‘anti-government’ activities.

All religious activities in Vietnam have to be registered and approved by the government. Catholic groups even have to seek permission to help the poor in their local neighbourhoods. This is the government’s way of making sure that they can observe everything that happens in religious groups and can keep a close eye on every person who attends. Often the government decides to refuse permission for groups to meet, leaving those who are committed to their faith with no option but to meet in secret, hiding their faith from their community and their government.

Many religious prisoners are kept in confinement year after year in Vietnam. Prisoners are kept in extremely uncomfortable conditions and are denied access to family, friends, legal advice or a fair trial. Stories emerge month after month of people being arrested in the middle of the night. Those arrested are usually subject to extreme violence, sometimes even torture, and are then detained and taken away to secret locations where their family are unable to reach them and where they have no way of knowing where they are or when they will be freed.

A case that is very worrying for me personally is that of Father Nguyen Van Ly. I met Father Ly in 2006 and can say that he is a gentle, peaceful and caring man, who has dedicated much of his life to democracy, freedom and faith. He’s now been imprisoned for a total of more than 15 years for his beliefs and actions.

I am especially worried for Father Ly because in 2010 he suffered from a stroke and was released from prison to receive medical care. Vietnam’s poor reputation for treatment of prisoners was not helped, when, despite Amnesty International’s pleas Farther Ly was returned to prison in July of this year.

I am also deeply concerned about recent actions against parishioners in the Thai Ha parish in Hanoi. Reports have surfaced that in early November, over one hundred people; many plains clothes police officers and military personnel attacked the parish and threatened the lives of parishioners. The incident, along with the 2008 ransacking of the Thai Ha parish provide evidence of a consistent campaign by government officials against the church and its members to freely assemble and undertake their regular religious worship and good work.

I have continued to call for the immediate release of Father Ly and all other religious and political prisoners in Vietnam and I condemn the recent actions against Thai Ha parish. I hope that with time, pressure from the Vietnamese people and the international community will force the Communist Government to release religious and political prisoners, to stop intimidation against religious organisations and to behave like a truly free and fair democracy.

Buoyed by the internet and information technology, we’ve seen political change sweep through the Middle-East this year. With people’s increasing access to information and communications it’s becoming more and more difficult for governments to oppress their people and hide their human rights violations from the international community.

I hope that the Vietnamese people and their friends around the world will soon lift the veil on the injustices committed in Vietnam and that the Vietnamese people will soon see the society that they deserve. A society where people can be free to participate in democratic government, free to practice their religious beliefs as they see fit and free to live peacefully without fear.