Testimony on Religious Persecution in Vietnam, May 16, 2001

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Thomas E. Quigley, Policy Adviser, U.S. Catholic Conference
Prepared for the Congressional Dialogue on Vietnam
Of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus
May 16, 2001

My name is Thomas Quigley, Mr. Chairman, and I serve as policy adviser on Asian affairs at the United States Catholic Conference. I am pleased to be able to offer some comments on the state of religious freedom in Vietnam today. I will confine my brief remarks to the current status of church-state relations and the freedom of religion as they concern the Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam. It is well known that religious groups not recognized by the government suffer far greater restrictions than is normally the case with the six officially recognized religions, including the Catholic Church. I leave to others to describe the situation concerning especially the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and the growing but indeterminate number of evangelical Christian associations.

A word about the past. There have historically been significant differences between the North and the South--the country was divided into two quite distinct states for most of the 17th and 18thcenturies, and again between 1954 and 1975--this division has also deeply affected the Church in the two areas. With the flight to the south of the mid-'50s of hundreds of thousands of Catholics, the Church in the North lost between one third and one half of its membership. Those who remained lived under extremely harsh treatment by the athiest regime, denied access to education and decent jobs,and treated as second-class citizens. All schools and seminaries were closed and church-going became all but impossible in the cities, resulting in many people abandoning their faith.

The Church in South Vietnam, meanwhile, experienced an unprecedented growth. It ran prestigious institutions of higher learning, it saw many people entering the priesthood and religious life, and Catholics came to occupy more than their share of leadership positions, so much so that resentment and anti-Christian feelings grew sharply among many Buddhists. All that, of course, came to a brutal end in 1975.

The thaw of the '90s. Following the re-unification of the country in 1975 until roughly the early1990s, there continued to be severe discrimination against Christian believers. The Church's ministries were severely hampered, seminaries could not function, and many dioceses remained without bishops.The situation gradually improved over the past decade, notably with the return of most of the seminaries and houses of formation previously closed, and with the resolution of appointments to the two archdioceses of Hué and Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.

The resolution was 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.The Archdiocese of Hué had been vacant for six years when Archbishop Nguyen Van Thé was reappointed Administrator in 1994 and was later able to be installed as archbishop. The still more contested Archdiocese of Saigon was vacant for five years after the death of Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh. The logjam was broken in 1998 with the installation of Archbishop Pham Minh Man. This is the diocese to which Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan had been appointed to administer just as the war was coming to a close. Instead of being allowed to take his see, the authorities arrested him and held him in solitary confinement for thirteen years. After finally being released, he was allowed to travel for meetings in Rome but, once there, was told he could not return. Today he is the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and was recently made a cardinal.

As a simple but possibly significant barometer of the changing attitude of the Communist authorities toward the Catholic Church, high level delegations of U.S. bishops were able to travel to Vietnam, first in 1989 and most recently in 1999. Members of the Vietnamese Bishops' Conference have similarly been able to travel to the United States and other countries in the last few years, and we are anticipating the visit of an official delegation of their Conference later this year.

Present Limitations on Religious Freedom. Is there persecution of the Catholic Church in Vietnam? The Church there tends no longer to use the term, concentrating instead on seeking to persuade the authorities of their faithful citizenship as Vietnamese, posing no direct threat to the security of the State. Through dialogue, the bishops have succeeded in recent years in seeing the return of all but one of their seminaries, in getting all episcopal appointments approved, in having much less difficulty in securing permission for church officials to travel abroad, and so on.

On the other hand, all acknowledge that there are severe restraints on religious freedom, which the bishops repeatedly speak out on, calling for the government to relax specific restrictions. After each meeting of the episcopal conference, for example, the bishops typically send a memorial of the meeting to the Prime Minister, in which they both express their gratitude that certain concessions have been made--recently, for example, the permission to build an extension to the seminary of the Ho Chi Minh City archdiocese--but also list the areas in which they seek greater freedom. Among these typically are the following:

  • The long delays in securing the appointment of bishops and diocesan administrators; this has been a central point on the agenda in the bilateral meetings between the Vatican and the Vietnam government. This situation has recently seen improvements, as noted above.
  • The restrictions on the ordination, appointment and transfer of priests, a major sticking point.Even after completing all requisite studies for ordination, candidates are often made to wait a year or more before beginning their ministry.
  • The carrying out of the Church's normal activities, involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives, are all subject to approval by the civil authorities.
  • Recruitment of seminarians is severely restricted; only a certain number may be enrolled in the diocesan seminaries each year, and candidates and even their families are subjected to scrutiny.
  • Publications and other media are forbidden; a weekly newspaper under the editorial control of the Fatherland Front is the only Catholic publication, and the Church has no access to the mass media.
  • Many buildings that once belonged to the Church have been administered by the State on the grounds that they were needed for social purposes. Even when their purposes are no longer met, the buildings are seldom returned to their owners.

Conclusion. There can be no denying that religious freedom is severely limited in today's Vietnam but, as with other Communist states that have survived the Cold War, improvements have to be noted.Improved relations are particularly evident in the case of the Catholic Church, far less so in the cases of the UBCV and the evangelical Christian churches, about some of which one can truly speak of religious persecution. The gradual opening to the West, especially to the United States, beginning with the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in February 1994 and the normalization of relations in July 1995,has been accompanied by a number of positive developments in religious liberty. At the time of the U.S. decision to establish formal relations with Vietnam, the USCC Committee on International Policy made the following comment:

The Catholic Bishops of Vietnam have long advocated increased diplomatic, trade and other relations between their country and the United States. We welcome this step, then, not as a sign of approval of a regime that still fails to assure the full rights of its people, but as a means of strengthening the needed dialogue, of making more effective our concern for the people of Vietnam, and of moving forward in healing the wounds of war.