By Lorenzo Fazzini
If I were to tell you openly everything that they are doing against the Church, tomorrow they would arrest me and put me in prison
ROMA (Chiesa) – “You don’t know the communists. If I were to tell you openly everything that they are doing against the Church, tomorrow they would arrest me and put me in prison.” The Vietnamese bishop who is confiding in me shrugs unhappily. Because ending up in jail for one’s faith is a realistic option in a country in which the party is still a god, in the Soviet manner.
In more diplomatic terms, Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Manh, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, admits that “the situation is difficult.” His words express everything necessary to evoke the fiction of religious “freedom” that is crushing the Church in Vietnam. “The Church is free, but it does not have the right to be so,” the cardinal tells me as he opens the door to his residence near the cathedral of Notre Dame, right in the heart of downtown. In front of the bishop’s residents, on the façade of the former presidential palace of South Vietnam, there is a prominent propaganda poster, painted red. “The communist party, the government and people’s district 5 say: study and follow the example of Uncle Ho Chi Minh,” the writing says, with the father of his country smiling with his white goatee.
Catholics are 8 percent of the population in Vietnam, out of 84 million inhabitants, and the Church enjoys unquestioned social prestige even among non-Christians, but since the end of last summer, the tension has come to a breaking point. The objects of contention are some property, buildings, and structures that once belonged to the Church, confiscated by the Vietminh after they came to power in Hanoi, in the north, in 1954; these confiscations were repeated in 1975 in the south, following the occupation of Saigon, today known as Ho Chi Minh City. This is property that the Church is now asking be given back, from a country that began economic liberalization in 2006, entering the World Trade Organization, WTO.
For more than ten years – until the middle of the 1980’s – the communists kept the churches closed. The chapel of the University of Dalat, the second-largest academic center in the country, underwent a singular transformation: the spot where the cross used to be, on the bell tower, now displays a red star in the Soviet style. The seminaries have become state buildings. In Huê, the ancient imperial capital, the minor seminary where François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân studied – the future cardinal, imprisoned for 13 years and martyred for the faith – has become one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. The Carmelite convent of Hanoi – in the place where St. Thérèse of Lisieux dreamed of coming as a missionary – has been turned into a hospital. A church just a few steps from the Italian embassy in the capital has been turned into a warehouse.
In the face of brazen instances of corruption, in which property has been sold to state or private industries in exchange for substantial bribes for government officials, the Catholics have taken to the streets. They have taken to the streets to pray, as they explain at the Vietnamese bishops’ conference, which represents the bishops of the country’s 27 dioceses. The Church is demanding the restitution of property that it needs today more than ever, in order to accommodate a growing number of faithful: in Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are 9,000 adult baptisms each year. Believers and pastors are asking a simple question: why is it that in a Vietnam with eight percent economic growth per year, with investments by Japanese and “Yankee” companies, with skyscrapers springing up like mushrooms together with luxury hotels (in the coastal area of Nha Trang, the bishop’s residence is now surrounded by a new Hilton hotel to the right, and two futuristic towers to the left), the Church does not have the right to take back assets and property forcibly taken away from it thirty years ago?
In mid-August, the faithful of the Redemptorist parish of Thai Ha, in suburban Hanoi, began to protest peacefully. A state-run company wants to build a road across the 14,000 square meters of parish land, which the authorities falsely claim was given to the state by the Redemptorists in the 1970’s. The police stepped in, using cattle prods and tear gas against the elderly and children. Six people were arrested. Why? “Because they were praying peacefully. This violation of human rights is unacceptable, it should be written and spoken to the whole world.” Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, archbishop of Hanoi for just a little over three years, is not afraid to denounce what has taken place in Thai Ha, and not only that. Now he is in the eye of the hurricane, first for aligning himself with the Redemptorist parish, and then for leading the largest nonviolent protest demonstrations seen in Hanoi since 1954.
On September 21, 10,000 people gathered to pray in the courtyard of the former apostolic nunciature, next to the residence of the archbishop of Hanoi, in the central district of Hoàn Kiem. The protest was a response to the fact that after nine months of negotiations with the authorities in the capital, two days before, during the night, with no warning, bulldozers and construction workers escorted by the army and police came onto the property of the former apostolic delegation, to turn it into a public park.”They did not warn us, they did everything unilaterally, breaking off the dialogue we had carried forward for months,” is the complaint from Vietnamese Church leaders. Cardinal Pham Minh Manh Is turning up the heat: “I have publicly reiterated that the Church’s policy is based on dialogue founded on truth, justice, and charity. But this dialogue is difficult because that word, dialogue, does not even exist in the communist vocabulary, just as the term solidarity does not exist.”
Now the protest prayers have been suspended, just as the construction work has. But in the meantime, Archbishop Kiet has lived under special surveillance for several weeks. Going to visit him means passing among hidden audio recorders, cameras, and video cameras, placed around the bishop’s residence to identify anyone who approaches him. It was only after the first week of October that this 56-year-old bishop, who studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris and was the head of two dioceses in the north – where communist repression has reduced the faithful to just six thousand – was finally able to appear in public again. In order to attend the episcopal ordination of the new bishop of Bac Ninh, thirty kilometers north of the capital, the faithful nearly trampled him in showing their solidarity for his courageous action on behalf of the Church’s freedom.
In fact, what could seem to be a mere question of construction is, in reality, an act of repression against the Vhurch. Some of the authoritative voices of Vietnamese Catholicism are presenting compelling arguments on why this question – the restitution of confiscated property – is the line of resistance on which the future of Catholicism depends, in the country of Uncle Ho. “We have repeatedly asked the government, with written requests, for the restitution of our property, the documents of which we possess. On most of these occasions, the authorities have not even given us an answer. Sometimes they have said: we’ll see, we’re evaluating it,” explains Fr. Thomas Vu Quang Trung, provincial of the Jesuits in Thu Duc, on the outskirts of Saigon. “In 1975, after the expulsion of foreign religious, the reasoning of the government has been simple: there are too few of you for these buildings, we will take them to use for our people.”
Fr. Trung stretches his arms wide: “It might be acceptable that they could use some of our old properties, like our house in Dalat, for a public purpose, for schools or hospitals. But to turn it into a discotheque, as has happened with a building belonging to the sisters in Ho Chi Minh City, this cannot be! Our college in Hu has been turned into a supermarket. Our requests for restitution continue, in part because this is a question that concerns not only the Catholics, but all of the religious confessions, and even the ordinary people. The two disputes in the north – over the former nunciature in Hanoi, and the Redemptorist parish – do not concern only the ownership of land, but the manner in which justice is administered.”
Fr. John Nguyen Van Ty, a former superior of the Salesians and adviser to Cardinal Pham Minh Manh, is even more explicit: “The authorities are afraid of a domino effect: if they give ground in Hanoi, there is the risk that all of the religions will present their demands in the name of justice. This matter of Hanoi, according to some of them, could be the spark that burns everything down. Both the Catholics of Vietnam and those of the diaspora are united: we will not give up, this is a question of justice, not of religious freedom, but of law. It is well for the Vatican not to intervene in the question, considering it an affair of the local Church. Otherwise, this would be considered a merely confessional matter, and instead it is a question of justice. Of course, they are bringing heavy intimidation and threats against the archbishop, agitation by violent gangs, arrests of Catholics, daily insults against the Church in the media. The communists are afraid of the Catholics because they are the strongest organized religion in the entire country. But among the intellectuals, university professors, students, and journalists, the reality is becoming known, that communism oppresses, and they see the Church as a place of freedom.”
Fr. Francis Xavier Phan Long, head of the Franciscan province, explains that the Vietnamese bishops have done a very good job of “hammering in the nail” of private property, publicly asking the government to review the law – “obsolete and outdated,” according to the president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon – that recognizes the state alone as the owner of land.
“I am happy that for the first time, the bishops have taken a common stance on a concrete problem. Ordinarily, when they had their annual assembly, they released a final statement concerning very general questions,” Fr. Long explains in his office in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. “This time, in a new way, they have faced a burning question like that of Hanoi, insisting on a frank and direct dialogue with the authorities. We don’t know whether the law on private property will change, but we hope so. As for myself, I’ve already told the authorities one thing . . .”
What was that? He answers: “When the events in Hanoi began, the security minister summoned me to ask for my opinion about what was happening. I warned him that if the government takes the property of the Franciscans in the future, we will be ready to fight. Peacefully, since we are sons of St. Francis. But nevertheless, we would not be willing to give up the fight.”