During the last two years, state media in Vietnam have often portrayed some bishops and priests as “troublemakers” who have been “inciting riots, falsely accusing the government, disrespecting the nation, breaking and ridiculing the law, and instigating followers to violate it” [1]. Such accusations boom again on the eve of the meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Vietnamese communist leader Nguyen Minh Triet on Dec. 11 as justification for all recent crackdowns against the Church in the country.

Is it true that there has been a growing tendency among Vietnamese Catholics in which the path of confrontation is preferred over dialogue? A seminar on Church-State Relations in Vietnam held in Saigon Archdiocese on Nov. 28 frankly rejected the idea.

Confrontation means Death

The case of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi can shed some light on the issue. Among all bishops in Vietnam, the outspoken prelate stands out as a leader with more conflicts with the government than the others. However, labelling him as someone who would opt for the path of confrontation is absurd, a type of baseless allegation only surfacing when someone wants nothing other than to incriminate his adversary?

As stated by the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam in response to accusations of the People’s Committee of Hanoi last year, Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet did nothing wrong when urging his faithful to pray peacefully in front of Hanoi nunciature as a way to seek a sincere yet resolute dialogue with the government on a legitimate aspiration of Catholics when they were left with no other option: getting back their properties that had been seized illegally by the government.

Instead of listening to its citizen, at first, the government chose to ignore, then created more heat than light, further entrenched combatants in defending its position while violently attacking Catholics. At a point, under international pressure, it had promised to return the nunciature before turning around to betray its words outright by starting demolition on the property in dispute with the aid of a great mass of police and security forces, militiamen, and police dogs instead of giving it back to its rightful owner.

Soon after that, a smearing campaign against the prelate in all of state media took place. The archbishop's office had to be locked down for months. His staff locked the gate outside the office to prevent sudden attacks by the pro-government mobs that gather regularly outside, yelling slogans in praise of Communism and questioning the prelate's patriotism. This had not only been a terrifying personal experience for the prelate and his faithful, but also a major disruption to his pastoral duties. The prelate's safety and even his life during this period of time was obviously in jeopardy had there not been unyielding support from his faithful, and the watchful eyes of the worldwide Christian community.

The smearing campaign against the prelate had lasted for months before fading away. But the attempt to kick him out of his post never ends. Quietly yet steadily, they seem already mount to the point that the heroic prelate believes that he should go for the benefit of the Church as recruitment of seminarians has been restricted along with severe restrictions on the ordination, appointment and transfer of priests; and enormous obstacles in carrying out of the Church's normal activities, involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives.

Facing all odds against him, has the archbishop ever called for a counter demonstration to point fingers at those who wronged him? Has he accepted any interview from international news agencies to set the record straight?

Like Our Lord Jesus Christ in the court of Pilate, the battered prelate chose to remain silent.

“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”, Mt 26, 25. It’s not only a biblical warning for Christians, but in the context of Vietnam’s society, it’s also a practical reminder for Catholics to survive. For them, confrontation means nothing other than committing suicide.

One can see that Church leaders in Vietnam have been very careful in dealing with the dictatorial regime.

“We need concrete instructions from the Holy See when being confronted with sensitive issues in which a tiny mistake would cause enormous damages to the Church and the country,” [2] said Bishop Paul Bui Van Doc of My Tho in the above said seminar.

“A tiny mistake would cause enormous damages”. How true can this warning be under such a brutal regime as that of in Vietnam whose extreme reactions taken against its critics, and adversaries have been well documented throughout history.

It is the government who has chosen the path of confrontation in order to gain a total submission of individuals and communities.

The road to dialogue

In order to survive and develop, the Church in Vietnam has been left with no other alternative than seeking “a healthy collaboration” between the Church and the State through dialogue as reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI in his speech to Vietnamese bishops during their Ad Limina visit in June this year [3].

However, the road to a fruitful dialogue with the atheist government is so uphill and challenging with an enormous amount of obstacles.

Seven days before Christmas 1976, at the Mass to conclude the first congress of the so-called “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics”, concelebrating priests shocked thousands of attendances by intentionally ignore the Prayer for the Pope, an act seen as a symbol of the intention to break the tie with Vatican, a subtle warning of the Church's future under the control of the Party. These priests, most of them were members of the Communist Party, have been warmly praised by the Party as “typical examples” of “good collaborators” much needed for bridging the gap between the Church and the State of Vietnam.

Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang of Thai Binh, in his article published on VietCatholic News [4] on Sep. 10, 2008, recalled another shocking story. When Pope John Paul II decided to canonise 117 Vietnamese Martyrs on June 19, 1988, the author and other bishops including Cardinal Joseph Maria Trinh Van Can, then archbishop of Hanoi, were summoned to the Ministry Of National Security to be subject to Police General Mai Chi Tho's unleashing his fury on Vietnamese Martyrs, depicting them as treasors, and criminals. “The cardinal had to kneel down on his knees crying out his plea for the General to stop his smearing discourse,” Bishop Francis Sang wrote. Later, a bishop in South Vietnam was forced to write a letter to His Holiness John Paul II to protest the canonisation. However, despite the strong pressure of communists, the ceremony went ahead in the joy of Vietnamese Catholics around the world.

These examples highlight the fact that Vietnam government tends to identify the “good collaboration” between the Church and the State with the total submission of the Church to the rule of the Communist Party. In this regard, it sees in the loyalty of Catholics to the Holy See a threat to the nation's unity, and often interprets Vatican’s decisions relating to the Church in Vietnam as acts that trample on the sovereignty of the country and its internal affairs under the pretext of religious freedom.

It’s worth noting that there have been repeating attempts to set up a Church under directives of the Party. Both the “Liaison Committee for Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics”, born in March 1955, and the “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics” born in June 1975, were tasked to set up a state-controlled Catholic Church. Up to now, while the Church does not allow having its own magazines, these committees have been subsidised by the State to publish their magazines in the name of the Church yet carrying a series of anti-Vatican articles to lay harsh criticisms on Vatican and the Pope in order to prove their loyalty to the Party.

On its road to a fruitful dialogue with Vietnam government, there remains a challenging task for Catholics in Vietnam to dismiss the dark cloud of prejudices and suspicions in their government mentality while not compromise their loyalty to Christ and His Universal Church, their Catholic identities, and their missions.

One also must recognise a major obstacle that Vietnamese officials at all levels seem not be ready for such a dialogue.

The New Hanoi newspaper, the mouthpiece of Communist Party in Hanoi, and other Sate media have repeatedly put forward to Catholics the question “What they [Catholics] think they are in order to ‘dialogue’ with our government?”

Having so much power, Vietnamese authorities seem not be ready in coming to term with “dialogue” as a method of choice for settling dispute with its citizens regardless of whom. Adopting their Chinese mentor and backer's policy on dealing with domestic conflicts or disputes, they opted for harassment, threat, violence, crackdown, and imprisonment as ways to silence and punish dissidents and critics.

On Monday morning July 27, Fr. Paul Nguyen Dinh Phu parish priest of Du Loc was beaten brutally by a group of plain-clothed police and thugs when he was on his way to Tam Toa parish. Bishop’s Office of Vinh Diocese made an urgent complaint to the People’s Committee of Quang Binh and asked Fr. Peter Nguyen The Binh, pastor of Ha Loi, the nearest parish, to accompany with Tran Cong Thuat, deputy governor of Quang Binh, to visit Fr. Paul Nguyen.

At the hospital, Thuat secretly withdrew. As soon as he went away, the gang jumped to Fr. Peter Nguyen and beat him cruelly before throwing him from the 2nd floor of the building.

As the tension boiled, Bishop Paul Marie Cao Dinh Thuyen of Vinh called for peaceful dialogue. His call was ignored while army and police were put in high alert and deployed by great mass in the area. Neither dialogue nor apology came from the People’s Committee of Quang Binh. Instead, a few months later, it spent a huge amount of money to demolish a large statue of Our Lady at Bau Sen Parish’s cemetery, while threatening more extreme actions.

Along with the unwillingness to dialogue with churchmen of state officials, their unending demands on Church properties have caused boiling tensions in recent years.

In the era of open markets, land values have increased at a dizzying rate. As values of religious properties being reassessed, their economic potentials turn out to be so great that the authorities must find ways to claim them for personal gains. Citing the Communist system where “all land belongs to the people and is managed by the State on behalf of the people”, local governments throughout Vietnam have forced religious leaders to “donate” religious properties. In most cases, before the victims can react, demolition would start soon to convert these properties into hotels, restaurants, and night clubs.

In the same fashion, a wave of churches, monasteries, seminaries, schools, hospitals, and other social centres throughout the country have one by one slip into the hands of local authorities.

In a series of robbing Church properties, the 79,200m2 Dalat Collegium Pontificium is the latest incident. Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, President of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam was forced to “donate” the largest and dearest seminary to the heart of many bishops and priests in Vietnam to local authorities of Dalat. “Fourteen priests who had graduated from there were ordained as bishops,” said the prelate on Nov. 25, 2009 [5].

Help from the Holy See

With the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the introduction to open market, the gradual opening to the West, especially to the United States, beginning with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in February 1994, the normalization of relations in July 1995, and the accession into WTO in November 2006; it is fair to say that there has been a modest improvement in terms of religious freedom. However, one cannot deny that religious freedom is still a far cry from reality in today's Vietnam, and outright persecutions happen every now and then.

Since the first Holy See visit in 1989, the situation of the Church in Vietnam has been improved due in good part to the persistent efforts of the Holy See to maintain an official dialogue with the authorities, including a more or less annual visit to Vietnam of a Vatican delegation.

In this perspective, on the eve of the meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Vietnamese communist leader Nguyen Minh Triet on Dec. 11, Vietnamese Catholics have expressed both hope and fear.

Facing so many persecutions in recent years, they hope Holy See can take this opportunity to defend for the Church in Vietnam and grant them more supports.

On the other hand, they know well that Triet’s visit has been carefully designed to take place at the time when Vietnam needs more than ever to mask its notorious records of human and religious rights abuse. With due respect to the Pope and the Holy See, to which they are always unwaveringly faithful even at the cost of grave suffering, Vietnamese Catholics do not want to see the most trusted universal Church become the latest casualty of Vietnam government’s deception.

On Jan. 25, 2007, Vietnam PM Nguyen Tan Dung paid a landmark visit to Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials. Three weeks later, on Feb. 19, 2007, security police surrounded and raided Hue Archdiocese to ransack the office, confiscated computers, electronic equipments, and arrested Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest who had been imprisoned for 14 years for allegedly disseminating material criticizing the government's limitations on religious and political freedom.

The rage did not end there. The Church in Vietnam has since then been suffering more than ever. Masses have been denied for Catholics of Son La, and of numerous towns in the Central Highlands, even celebrations on major holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Monasteries at Thien An - Hue, Vinh Long, Long Xuyen, and Nha Trang were in turn seized and bulldozed to build hotels and tourist resorts. Redemptorists in Thai Ha and their faithful have continually suffered from physical attacks. They were even tried in criminal court for holding peaceful protests which ended up with unjust verdicts. Even Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet was not immune to malicious attempt, either.

Amid outright persecutions on these days, what would happen to the Church in this country after this visit?

[1] Letter of Chairman Nguyen The Thao to Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, President of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam - September 23, 2008
[2] Bishop Paul Bui Van Doc - Church-State Relations in Vietnam - http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/73996.htm
[4] Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang - http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/58310.htm
[5] Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon – November 25, 2009 http://vietcatholic.net/News/Html/73866.htm