In the country of ‘Uncle Ho’: Persecution of Catholics

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.”

Education has become a means to make money, and Vietnam grows poorer

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – Education in Vietnam has become a system for making money: there is no freedom of thought in the schools and universities, and the only concern is for making a profit, not for forming young people, and this is impoverishing the country.

Everyone is conditioned and guided by the policies of the communist party, so that the education system is taking on an important role of protecting the regime. The system has degenerated and creates “san pham dzom,” bad results for the country. It even produces liars who are harming the country.

Many private schools and universities, and even state universities, are turning education into a business. The heads of educational institutions are looking at profits, and are forgetting or even defying the traditional values of Vietnamese culture. They are losing the tradition of student formation. “We are hired as ‘useful’ professors, but not as ‘good’ ones,” says an economics professor at the Institute of Accounting and Business Management in Ho Chi Minh City. “We are able to teach and sell knowledge for their profits. The more they have students the more they have money. The leaders of the educational units can service the city because they have ‘o du’ – ‘umbrella organization’ from local authorities, and working for the city’s police office. So they are producing students who are not well educated. Even students of master of business administration and doctorate programs of business administration do not need to write thesis and dissertation when studying the training courses”.

The local authorities are corrupted by the educational system. They have allowed educational offices to turn their work into a business. Their education is all about doing business and making money. Teachers and students have no freedom of thought: everything is conditions and guided by government agents, by “education officials.” Than, an English teacher at Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, tells AsiaNews, “Now the university is competitive with other ones. So the university runs follow advertisement and marketing with the lack of truthfulness. Viet Nam’s educational system from nursery schools to universities with persons who do business in education make advertisement by use of untrue words. Before 1975, Catholic universities, high schools and even elementary schools never did deceitful things like that. It is clear that education has declined and ‘made a headache’ for society with many bad phenomena such as imitation degrees, rote learning, theories but not practice, learning one way of ideological thinking.”

All of this impoverishes the country, with a poverty that is economic, moral, and educational, and allows no freedom of thought.

Vietnam inflation slows, foreign investment surges

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

HANOI, Vietnam: Vietnam’s inflation rate eased to 26.7 percent in October as global oil and commodity prices fell but remains one of the highest in Asia, according to government figures released Tuesday.

Despite high inflation, Vietnam continues to attract record foreign direct investment commitments as investors believe the country’s long-term growth prospects are sound. Pledged foreign direct investment from January to October totals $58.3 billion, up nearly six times from the same period of last year, the General Statistics Office said.

The consumer price index has now fallen for two consecutive months after reaching a 17-year high of 28.3 percent in August, the statistics office said in a statement. Vietnam usually releases economic data before the end of the reporting period based on estimates.

The government has cut fuel prices several times since August following a steep fall in the global price of crude oil. The consumer price index fell 0.2 percent from September.

Vietnam’s economy has grown rapidly over the last decade, powered by an influx of foreign capital, but began overheating last year. The economy grew 8.5 percent last year but slowed to 6.5 percent in the first nine months of this year, hit by government efforts to tame rampant inflation and a swelling trade deficit.

Food prices in September surged 40.6 percent from a year earlier and the cost of housing and construction materials jumped 22.8 percent.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said earlier this month that the government expects inflation for 2008 to be 24 percent.

As of Oct. 22, some 953 new projects have been licensed this year, the GSO said.

Malaysia topped the list of investments by country, with investment commitments totaling $14.9 billion so far this year. The bulk that figure comes from a $9.79-billion steel mill project licensed in September.

Taiwan came second with $8.6 billion of investment commitments, followed by Japan with $7.3 billion.

Vietnam faces poverty threat

The United Nations has warned that double-digit inflation and shocks from the global financial turmoil are threatening to plunge Vietnamese households living on the margins, back into dire poverty.

UN resident coordinator, John Hendra, says many groups remain vulnerable to food shortages, especially landless farmers, the urban poor and ethnic minority groups..

He says global commodity and energy prices have dropped back from their peaks this year, but Vietnam’s inflation, still stood at almost 27 per cent this month.

He says the global financial crisis will likely impact Vietnam’s export-driven economy on top of the soaring consumer prices.

Vietnam faces poverty threat

Vietnam inflation slows but economists still worried

Hanoi – Vietnam’s once-sizzling inflation rate slowed for the second straight month in October, but Vietnamese economists said Monday the government should not yet declare victory. “I am not reassured by the low inflation figure from October, because it doesn’t prove that the government’s tight monetary policy has succeeded,” said Tran Duc Nguyen, an economist and informal government adviser.

Vietnam’s consumer price index fell 0.2 per cent in October after rising 0.2 per cent in September. The figures bolstered a trend that has seen inflation fall since hitting a month-on-month high of 3.9 percent in May.

Overall, prices have risen 26.7 per cent since last October.

And economists said the slowing inflation might not be due to the government’s tight credit policies in recent months, but to lucky external factors.

“The government’s tightened credit policy has only brought partial, preliminary success,” said Vo Tri Thanh, a senior official at the Central Institute for Economic Management. “Vietnam had good luck in October, as world prices have been falling quite fast.”

Experts said the decreases were largely due to lower world commodity and energy prices and domestic fuel price cuts, as well as tightened credit by Vietnamese banks.

Thanh said Vietnam’s macroeconomy faces a variety of risks, and stabilizing it should remain the government’s top priority. Year-on-year inflation remains high, inflationary pressures still exist, bad debts burden many banks, and the country is running a high balance of payment deficit.

“It will take time to overcome the domestic causes of inflation inside Vietnam,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen said the government should tighten credit for state-owned enterprises, but loosen it to the more efficient private sector, but he acknowledged that would be politically difficult.

Consumers continue to feel the pinch of high annual inflation. The Government Statistical Office said Saturday that year-on-year food prices were up 40.6 per cent in October, though down by 0.4 per cent against September.

Prices for housing and construction materials increased 22.8 per cent year-on-year while declining 1.1 per cent month on month.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last week told the National Assembly that the annual inflation rate for 2008 would be 24 percent, and said the government aims to bring it below 15 percent next year.

Vietnam inflation slows but economists still worried : Business

Analysts hail China, Vietnam deal

A new deal between Vietnam and China to resolve land and sea borders has been hailed as a major step forward.

Analysts say the deal will help avert fresh conflict between the two sides.

The two powers agreed in Beijing over the weekend to finish demarcating their land border this year, and to solve a maritime territorial dispute.

China and Vietnam have a tense relationship. Most recent disputes centre on the right to exploit oil and gas resources.

Border progress

The weekend deal was signed in Beijing by the visiting Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

“The China-Vietnam joint declaration of October 2008 represents a very positive continuation of the process of confidence-building measures that has been under way for nearly a decade,” said Dr Carlyle Thayer, visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

“It highlights areas for future co-operation and significantly sets up a hot line so the two sides can deal promptly with incidents, such as armed clashes, that arise from time to time,” he told the BBC.

He said the agreement to finish the physical laying of boundary markers along the once-disputed 1,350 km (840 mile) land border was particularly important.

The agreement also offers a plan to demarcate the Gulf of Tonkin, establish a common fisheries area and conduct joint naval patrols from time to time.

The statement did not settle the issue of the Spratly Islands, a strategic string of rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea claimed by several nations.

But China and Vietnam promised to “collaborate on oceanic research, environmental protection, meteorological and hydrological forecasts, oil exploration and information exchanges by the two armed forces,” China’s Xinhua news agency reported.

This builds on the resolution earlier this year of a potential conflict provoked by Vietnam’s publishing of a Maritime Strategy for the exploitation of maritime resources.

Past disputes

China and Vietnam have an uneasy relationship.

China supported the Vietnamese Communists during the Vietnam War, but Vietnam is wary of its huge northern neighbour and, after a brief but bloody 1979 border war, lost 70 men in a brief naval battle in 1988.

The two neighbours normalised relations in 1991.

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Analysts hail China, Vietnam deal

China, Vietnam pledge to settle disputed borders, boost trade

HANOI (AFP) — In a step to resolving long-running disputes, China and Vietnam have pledged to turn contentious border areas into economic growth zones and jointly explore oil-rich offshore areas in the future.

The communist neighbours — who stress their comradely ties but also have a history of distrust and conflict — reached the agreement during a visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Beijing, state media said.

Both countries are among claimants to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves, and claim sovereignty over the Paracel islands, which are occupied by China.

During Dung’s visit, which ended Sunday, Beijing and Hanoi “agreed to start a joint survey in the waters outside the mouth of Beibu Bay (Gulf of Tonkin) at an early date,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

They would “gradually advance the negotiations on demarcation of these maritime zones and will jointly exploit the zones,” Xinhua said.

The statement did not settle the hot-button issue of the Spratlys, a strategic string of rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea that are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

But China and Vietnam pledged to “collaborate on oceanic research, environmental protection, meteorological and hydrological forecasts, oil exploration and information exchanges by the two armed forces.”

The agreement, although vague on details and timelines, signals a gradual shift in relations between East Asia’s economic giant and the southern neighbour which for many centuries was ruled by China.

The South China Sea dispute — in which Chinese naval vessels have in the past fired on Vietnamese fishing boats — has in particular stirred strong nationalistic sentiments and sparked anti-Beijing street protests in Vietnam.

“The China-Vietnam joint declaration is a major confidence building measure between two potential protagonists,” said veteran Vietnam-watcher Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

“The agreement to begin work on demarcating waters outside the Tonkin Gulf will serve to reduce the area where clashes between fishermen and naval vessels are likely to occur,” he told AFP.

Earlier this year Beijing angered Hanoi when it reportedly warned US oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp that it would be barred from operating in China unless it pulled out of a joint exploration deal with Vietnam.

Last week Dung and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao oversaw the signing of a strategic cooperation pact between state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp and PetroVietnam, reports said without giving further details.

Both countries also reaffirmed they would complete demarcation of their 1,350-kilometre (840-mile) land border on schedule by the end of this year.

As recently as 1979 China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in the mountainous region when China, having backed Hanoi during the Vietnam war, sought to punish Vietnam for ousting Cambodia’s China-backed Khmer Rouge.

Under both countries’ plans, Vietnam’s north is set to be transformed with industrial projects and new road and rail links that would connect China’s Yunnan and Guangxi provinces with Vietnam’s Haiphong seaport.

The ‘economic corridors’ — part of a web of highways linking China with Southeast Asia — would help boost annual two-way trade to a targeted 25 billion dollars by 2010 from 16 billion dollars last year.

Dung also visited China’s Hainan province and proposed closer shipping links with Vietnam. Other deals included a 200-million-dollar joint industrial zone in Haiphong and a light-rail project in the capital Hanoi.

Thayer said the agreement “to proceed positively in contentious areas is a positive contribution to peace and security in the region.”

“Both Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung have demonstrated statesmanship in these troubled times by not letting the rancour of nationalism trump economic development,” he said.
AFP: China, Vietnam pledge to settle disputed borders, boost trade