Some observations about Persecutions of the Catholic Church in Vietnam

Being Communist, the government of Vietnam acts against all religions, including Buddhists, Protestants, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao Buddhists and Muslims. This starts with harassment and may end up in detention or expulsion from their homes, villages or even the country.

As is well known from all Communist governments, the authorities seek to keep all religious groups under control. As long as they are organized under government-controlled councils and thus meet with the government's knowledge, the latter will leave them alone, except for controlling what is preached. Independent groups, however, come under serious pressure from the government, especially their leaders.

Catholics make up just 7 per cent of Vietnam’s population, but play an outsize role in the nation’s underground dissident movement. In return, churches are demolished, priests arrested and the religion smeared” Bennett Murray said in his article titled “Vietnam’s Catholics: cross with China, and all communists” published on 18 Aug, 2018 by This Week in Asia.

1.Catholic protestors and demonstrations against Vietnamese Communist Government

Father Anton Lê Ngọc Thanh, a priest at the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in Saigon is one of those protestors against the Communist government. He has been arrested 10 times, is banned from leaving the country and last year hosted a provocative rally that not only honored veterans of the defeated South Vietnamese Republic, but displayed its three-striped yellow flag – an act that has landed other activists lengthy prison terms.

Yet, as Father Thanh points out, being Catholic in a communist country involves suffering – plenty of it. As a politically active Catholic, Father Thanh is far from alone.

The nation’s underground dissident movement include some of the country’s most recognizable activists, including the imprisoned environmentalist blogger Nguyen Ngoc Như Quỳnh, also known as Mẹ Nấm (was released and expelled to USA last year, presently lives in Texas), and Nguyễn Văn Đài, the founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy movement who went into exile in Germany in June, 2018 after being released from prison.

Catholics played a prominent part in demonstrations that followed the 2016 chemical spill at the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant, which called for greater compensation for fishermen affected by the spill, and retaliatory attacks against them have been common.

Many protesters against Formosa in the parishes of the diocese of Vinh have been put in prisons. Father Đặng Hữu Nam was one of the people who actively joined the parishioners to sue Formosa and support them to overcome the consequences of Formosa that had been arrested many times by the government.

Those Catholics arrested who have had to go to court have not received a fair trial. An example of this is the stream of Catholic bloggers being given prison sentences. When they tried to get justice, authorities clamped down on them.

They have been subjected to smear-campaigns in the local media and accused of disruptive and anti-government activities as well. Churches are closely monitored and occasionally meetings are hindered or disturbed.

Further fueling the fire was Vietnam’s deeply embedded anti-Chinese sentiment. Open Door International observed that: “In a country where every city has streets named after ancient warriors canonized as heroes for resisting Chinese expansion, fears of Beijing’s regional ambitions run deep, and Catholics are no exception. Indeed, Vietnam’s Catholic dissidents hold a particular disdain for China, where laws surrounding the practice of religion are far more constrictive. Their attitudes appear to be at odds with the official line that relations are cordial between the church and Vietnam’s Communist Party”.

Unlike in China, where the only legal Catholic Association rejects the authority of the Vatican, the Vietnamese government allows the church to be in full communion with the Holy See.

Even so, the single party state is suspicious of any alternative power structures, says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “What the rulers in Hanoi don’t like is any organized movement with the backing of an organization with the resources and ability to mobilize people,” he says. “The Catholic Church in Vietnam has both of those things.”

2. The Law on Belief and Religion 2016 as an instrument to suppress civil rights and religious freedom

Vietnam’s Law on Belief and Religion, passed in 2016 by the National Assembly, guarantees the right of the people to practice faiths recognized by the government, provided the religious organizations report their activities to the government.

This Law on Belief and Religion 2016 took effect from the beginning of 2018. However, the Vietnam Bishops' Conference has sent a letter to the National Assembly to raise the limitations in this law. In it, the most objectionable points are that religions must register with the State and if allowed, they can operate; and the laws regarding the ownership of the land and properties.

Vietnamese religious leaders expressed concern that according to the new religious law, religious organizations must register with the state, as well as report their religious activities to the state. In addition, the law says religious activities will be banned if such activities harm national security.

It is no surprise that the new "Law on Religion and Belief" does not bring any tangible positive change. Civil rights and freedom of religion will remain elusive and Communist oppression will be heavily felt by Christians for the time being.

In effect, many parishes in Hanoi and Saigon have organized prayers for justice and peace, which has been described by the Hanoi government as a seed of dissent and denouncement of the regime, and their pastors harassed by government officials.

On October 30, 2017, two priests in Vinh Diocese came to work with the People's Committee of Diên Mỹ Commune, Diên Châu District, Nghệ An Province. They were slandered, threatened, and threatened by people claiming to be the Red Flag Association. The authorities then told them this is a spontaneous group in the masses.

Previously, in the first month of September, 2017, some members of this association went to a parish in Dong Nai, carrying weapons, threatening Fr. Nguyễn Duy Tân there, citing the reason that he uses his Facebook page to call a referendum on social issues.

Then, on October 29, 2018, in Sơn Hải commune, Nghe An province, there was a meeting of more than 1,000 members of the Red Flag Association in Hanoi and Nghệ An. The Red Flag Association is not a spontaneous mass group but is led by the government behind it.

The charges relate to an incident on May 22, 2018 when plain-clothed police officers stopped and searched Catholics attending Mass at a church in Nghi Phương, south of Hanoi. Two young men Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Ngo were arrested the following month, although the precise reason for this is unclear.

On Sept. 8, the Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media released a statement condemning the government’s role in ordering the harsh police response.

“The laws of Vietnam have become an effective means for the authorities to use whenever they want to suppress their own people,” the statement read.

3. Land-grabbing of Catholic properties by the Authorities

The issue of church building permits is handled by the authorities in a highly restrictive way. Land-grabbing by the authorities also continues and especially the Catholic Church faces problems in keeping possession of their property.

Several incidents happened in Thiên Ân Monastery (Huế), Lộc Hưng Parish (Saigon) in May and July 2018 showed. The Catholic Church owns a variety of large plots of land (churches, schools and hospitals), especially in the larger cities, and there has been more than one clash, when authorities made repeated attempts to take this property away, allegedly for development purposes.

In several incidents, churches and monasteries: Saint Paul the Chartres in Hanoi, Thiên Ân Monastery in Huế and Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and Lovers of the Cross Convent in Thu Thiêm have been attacked and come under pressure to accept demolition and the expropriation of their land, partly through the hands of government-hired thugs.

On clear evidence of such land-grabbing is Lộc Hung vegetable garden. On January 8, 2019 a high-profile forced eviction against residents of Lộc Hung vegetable garden, a Catholic residential neighborhood situated in the middle of Ho Chi Minh city was carried out. Hundreds of residents, many of them political activists, suddenly found themselves homeless, with neither compensation for the lost land nor the benefit of a resettlement program. They have become Dân Oan, or Victims of Injustice, a term that people whose land has been seized with little or no compensation call themselves.

Lộc Hung vegetable garden is a six-hectare area that belongs to the Catholic Archdiocese of Saigon. That area has been in dispute between the local government and the households for nearly twenty years. The Catholic residents have been living peacefully there since migrating to the South in the aftermath of the Geneva Accord in 1954 that divided the country, and their land use has not involved any dispute. The legal basis of the government’s action is unclear, since a land recovery decision, legally required before a forced eviction could take place, has never been issued for Lộc Hung.

In the early morning of January 8, the authorities continued to destroy many houses. The forced eviction started at 5:50 am with the authorities mobilizing forces to isolate Lộc Hưng. When the residents were praying in front of a Virgin Mary statue, police turned up their speakers, causing noise harassment.

At 6:00 am, police arrested Cao Ha Trực when he called for emergency support. His wife was also arrested at around 9:00 am before police destroyed their house. Trực is one of the leaders of the residents of Lộc Hung, representing the community in the negotiations with the authorities the past 20 years.

Elderly and disabled veterans of the former Republic of Vietnam were also direct victims of this forced eviction, as they were living in Lộc Hung garden and relying on the Redemptorist Church’s tribute program.

Authorities also destroyed the house of former political prisoners Pham Thanh Nghiên and Huynh Anh Tu. As a matter of fact, Lộc Hung vegetable garden was home, permanently or temporarily, to many political activists. Besides Nghiên and Tu, Pham Doan Trang was also living in the area at the time of the forced eviction, and many political activists before them had found refuge from government’s persecution in this community. Some activists thought this could be a reason why the area became an urgent target for the government’s land seizure.

This forced eviction in the very first days of 2019 is the continuation of this trend of illegal land seizures in a one-party country where there are no venues for the victims to hold public authorities accountable, since the whole state apparatus and judicial system are controlled by the only political force – the Communist Party of Vietnam. In fact, many victims of injustice and land rights activists became political activists, as they came to realize that the underlying cause is not just the legal system, but the political system that produces those laws and policies.

4. Religious Persecution in highlands and remoted rural areas.

The Catholic and Christian minority in Vietnam endures both state and tribal forms of Christian persecution. Seeing them as traitors to their cultural identity, village leaders exclude Christians from the community. Catholics who had been attacked while gathering to pray at their homes in many parishes in Hung Hóa Diocese.

Father Peter Lê Quốc Hưng, head of Hưng Hóa Diocese's Office Hanoi, on Aug. 10, 2017 paid a working visit to the Catholic community in Mường Khương district of the mountainous province of Lao Cai. Local Catholics there expressed their deep concern over local authorities and police who have brutally attacked and dispersed them while they were praying at the home of Trần Thị Trâm, a Catholic woman.

Authorities broke into the house, beat the owners, shouted at attendees and used loudspeakers to order the congregation to disperse.

These violent assaults on Catholics took place three times at Tram's home on May 28, June 12 and 19, 2017.

Catholics said local authorities also threatened to cause problems to their jobs and livelihoods.

Early July, 2017, Auxiliary Bishop Alfonse Nguyen Huu Long of Hung Hoa also visited and consoled Tram and her family.

The diocese has petitioned the district government, requesting an explanation about the assaults on local Catholics but have not received a response.

The Communist government monitors Catholic activities and exerts high levels of pressure, particularly on ethnic minorities (many are Protestants) living in the rural areas of central and northern Vietnam.

Christian children are discriminated against in schools; their medical needs also are often neglected. Some are not even allowed to attend school.

When tribal students in the central highlands converted to Christianity, their college principal threatened them with expulsion. Teachers also try to discourage Christian students, saying no one would employ them so it would be better to give up their faith altogether.

The publication and distribution of Christian materials is possible, but highly restricted. Any illegal material is confiscated by the police. It is also very difficult to obtain permission for setting up courses for training.

Movements of Christian leaders are monitored and access to their villages in the northern and central part of Vietnam is restricted. Media reporting on Christians is biased and slander against them is frequent. For example, Christians are portrayed as a tool to reinstate colonial ideology. Perpetrators against Christians are almost never brought to trial, indeed local authorities often hire thugs for acts of violence against Christians.

Fr. John Nghi Tran presented to Ambassador Sam Brownback
on March 26, 2019 at Vietnamese Catholic Center in Orange County, California, USA