Universe Column – January 2003
By David Alton
It is hard to visit the former central prison in Hanoi without experiencing a deep stirring of emotion. Built by the French, this was where they held nationalist leaders seeking to overthrown colonial rule. The leg irons, manacles, and guillotine are all a vivid reminder of the harrowing and brutal methods used to subdue dissidence.
In 1954 Ho Chi Minh, who took control of the north, routed the French. Throughout North Vietnam convents, church schools and hospitals were confiscated. 900,000 people fled to the South (500,000 were Catholic).
For those of us brought up in the sixties it is the sight of the clothes and uniforms of the US airmen who were also incarcerated in Hanoi Prison, that stirs the memories of the war that raged throughout those years in Vietnam. Prisoners like Senator John McCain spent many years in these cells, pondering, no doubt, on a conflict that still defines how America shapes its foreign policy.
The US armed forces were withdrawn in 1973 and in 1975 North Vietnamese forces overran the south: a precedent that shapes all American thinking about the communist regime in North Korea. It also led to the arrest of key Catholic figures in South Vietnam, such as Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who died in September of last year.
Hanoi prison is now a museum and Vietnam’s communist leaders have grudgingly initiated economic reforms as a prelude for a free market. Economic liberalisation has yet to be accompanied by any moves towards political pluralism and the country’s prisons still hold prisoners of conscience who have been incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.
At one level, allowing more Catholic seminarians to train for the priesthood, allowing 700,000 New Testaments to be printed, allowing the country’s six million Catholics to celebrate Christmas, and the consecration of a new church in one diocese (the first in fifty years) all point to the beginnings of greater tolerance. Yet in one respect old habits seem to die-hard: critical social comment by religious leaders is not to be permitted. When free speech is exercised prison sentences rapidly follow (including the imprisonment of some Buddhist monks from the country’s predominant religion, which counts some 39 million adherents).
One of the most significant religious prisoners is a Catholic priest, Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly.
Father Van Ly began a campaign for religious freedom in 2000 and was arrested after sending evidence to an American Congressional Committee in February 2001. He had called on the US Congress to postpone the ratification of a bilateral trade agreement while religious persecution persisted.
Father Van Ly is serving a fifteen-year prison sentence and during a visit to Hanoi with US Congressman, Joseph Pitts (Rep. Pennsylvania) on behalf of the Jubilee Campaign, I raised his case with Le Quang Vinh, head of the Vietnamese Government Committee on Religion.
Quang Vinh denies that religious persecution occurs in Vietnam and says that people like Father Van Ly have been arrested for acting subversively against the Communist Party: “It was not because he contacted the Congress” he said. “Van Ly tried to upset the people. He encouraged their illegal right to own land; he lied that there was no true freedom in Vietnam, and he refused to obey the authorities and accept their control. He armed his group to fight the authorities.”
When I asked him where Fr. Van Ly bought his guns and weapons he replied that “they had sticks and knives, not guns.”
The reality is that a group of about 35 frightened parishioners had gathered for sanctuary in his church. The church was surrounded by 600 armed security officers (Quang Vinh later contacted us to say the number was 200) and as Father Van Ly prepared to say Mass he was arrested. This report was confirmed by Dang Cong Dieu, the Chairman of the People’s Committee in Phy An.
Quang Vinh told us that we could not visit Fr. Van Ly but he did promise to place our plea for clemency before the Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai.
Fr Van Ly is only the latest and the most high profile of a series of prison sentences for Christians. The late Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years in Communist prisons, jailed after South Vietnam in 1975.
The beginnings of religious tolerance have come too late for Cardinal Van Thuan and there are worrying signs that ethnic minorities are to be excluded from the new dispensation.
In the central highlands of Vietnam the Montagnards, the Degar people, are facings systematic persecution. So are the Hmong.
There are about 600,000 tribal people from 30 different groups in the central highlands. Two thirds are Christian, both Catholic and Protestant. They assisted the US army during the Vietnam War and ever since 1995 they have not been allowed to forget it. Since 2001 they have been subjected to a massive crackdown.
Montagnard children have been denied education if their parent’s practice Christianity; soldiers and police have forced believer to renounce their faith and drink pig’s blood (a pre-Christian practice) and Martial law was imposed throughout the central highlands. A year ago the Cambodians deported 167 Montagnard refugees who had fled persecution. On their return they were tortured.
In Lai Chau province the Hmong have also suffered grievously.
Quang Vinh insists that he is working to ensure that “religious freedom is protected and improved.” Yet, last year Communist officials beat Mua Bua Senh, a Hmong Christian, to death when he refused to renounce his faith. His widow and six children, and three other families were forced to leave their homes and land.
Quang Vinh told me he would ask officials to investigate the case. He says “arrests are to do with issues of sovereignty and the secessionist aspirations of these groups. It is a political attack endangering our independence.
They may well have secessionist aspirations – hardly a crime, ask the Scots – but this has been used as smoke screen to try and eliminate Christianity; and the attacks have become violent and brutal.
Just six weeks ago a Sunday worship service was underway in the Huoi Huong hamlet, Huong Nha village of the Dien Bien District, Lai Chau province.
Suddenly, police rushed in, and insisted that everyone leave the worship service. The believers declined to go. The police then sprayed them with an unknown gas leaving more than 100 unconscious. Four small children died and three pregnant women lost their unborn babies.
All of the worshippers were transferred to the Lai Chau Hospital for treatment and five have failed to recover.
In recent months, three Montagnard pastors of the Dak Lak province have been imprisoned and subsequently killed by lethal injection in their cells at Buonmathuot. In addition, fifty-six Ede and Hmong pastors have disappeared. The government has forcibly closed 354 of the 412 churches in Dak Lak Province and more closures are expected to follow.
Quang Vinh simply told us that “it is not our policy to persecute. We’ll investigate.” He did say, however, that there is to be new legislation on religious liberties questions; that this has been approved in principle by the Party’s Central Committee; and that it will go before Parliament later this year. He declined to share a copy of the draft with us. However, the auguries are not good.
The plenum of the Central Committee opened with a call from the party’s General Secretary, Nong Duc Manh, for new policies to strengthen political and social stability.
The new party resolution promotes a campaign against dissent and appeals to the patriotism of religious people, encouraging them to counter attempts to use religious and ethnic issues against the party. The new resolution seeks to cement the control of religions from within. It provides for a programme to specifically increase the state management of religious affairs and to guide the six approved religions in line with party policy. To do this it has ordered the build-up of a core group of party members who are also religious followers, for each religion. Trotsky would have felt at home with this form of entryism.
The plenum has ordered a review of party policy in order to set up a programme for managing religious affairs over the long term.
One observer commented “Vietnam is clearly going backwards. When you hear words like “guidance” and “control” and “hostile forces” in connection with religious practice you can be certain that the Christian faith will suffer even more.”
In the past, Vietnamese people have suffered grievously from outside intervention. They are still living with some of the consequences. I heard, for instance, of one town in Nambinh Province, about 80 kilometers from Hanoi, where about 200 children are disabled from the continuing effects of Agent Orange; and of a further children 300 who were born without speech or sight. There are 300 orphans in the town (150 cared for by the local Catholic church).
Yet, now the country is suffering from within and if it is to grow strong and tackle its many challenges it simply cannot afford to pursue an ideological campaign against religious belief. Reconciliation, progress, and national unity will not be achieved through persecution.