The Church in Vietnam
Delegates from the Holy See were in Hanoi this week for bilateral meetings with Vietnamese officials. Relations between the Church and the Communist Government have improved in the booming country, but a recent visitor found rampant materialism and limited religious freedom
The residence of the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City – an ancient colonial mansion in whose grounds one can also find the city’s oldest building – is an oasis of peace amid the constant roar of the motorbikes filling the streets of the city that was once known as Saigon. But visitors arriving there cannot fail to notice the slogan written on a 10-metre-long banner hanging just across the road, on the wall of the local People Committee’s headquarters: “The party, the people and the army actively respond to the campaign: ‘Study and follow the moral examples of Ho Chi Minh’”.
It is a stark reminder that Vietnam, despite recent economic progress and a breakthrough in its relationship with the Vatican, is still a Communist country.
Just like the small flags bearing a hammerand-sickle symbol on street corners, that is something that the absent-minded traveller might easily overlook among the neon shopsigns and street-vendor stalls lining the city’s avenues. Vietnam has a vibrant economy – growing at around 7 per cent per year in the last 10 years – after business-friendly reforms in the past decades. But, just like China, political freedom has not come with greater economic freedom.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that the Catholic Church – with around eight million members, or around 9 per cent of the population – has gained from the country’s relative opening up to the outside world, and that its freedom has increased in recent years. “If we compare today’s situation with the past there are improvements. In the past, if we wanted to receive new seminarians, or to ordain new priests, we had to apply for official permission. Now we don’t, and we can transfer priests from parish to parish freely and so on,” Mgr
A figure of Mary in traditional Saigon dress in the pastoral centre of Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese
Peter Nguyen Van Kham, an auxiliary bishop in Ho Chi Minh City, told me recently.
The regime’s cautious détente with Catholicism isn’t limited to the local Church. Last year, the Holy See appointed its first diplomatic representative to Vietnam since 1975, when a decades-long war ended with the reunification of the two halves of the country under Communist rule.
That same year, after the conquest of Saigon, one of the first targets of the new rulers was the Catholic Church: Mgr François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, then an auxiliary bishop in Saigon and nephew of South Vietnam’s first President, was put under arrest for 13 years and, after his release, emigrated to the Vatican where Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal. Now, the new Vatican representative, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, though officially residing in Singapore, has visited the country several times.
Recently, the Archbishop of Hanoi has set up two rooms in his own residence for Archbishop Girelli to work and live in. This is because the Vatican ambassador’s official residence in central Hanoi – a building dating back to the early twentieth century – was among many church properties seized by the North’s Communist rulers after the Second World War. It is now one of the buildings the bishops are trying to claim back from the Government – so far, with little success.
Seized properties are probably the most contentious issue between the Communist regime and the Church. In the South, church authorities and local government have often managed to come to an agreement. This has happened at one restored property, the large pastoral centre, headed by Bishop Kham, in the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese. But in some cases, especially in the North, the Church has taken a more vocal and aggressive stance on the issue – and tension with the Government has been growing. Redemptorist Fathers, for example, organise silent prayer vigils for seized properties attended by thousands of people every month. Gangs of local youths have often targeted Catholics in retaliation.
Such rivalries present a risk, says Bishop Kham: “We are divided and we criticise each another – that’s not good.” Fr Thomas Thien Cam, a Dominican retired professor with strong government links, also warns against Catholics taking an aggressive stance: “The Vatican wants us to mend ties with the regime,” he says, “but some bishops resist, as many in the Church still think like in the past, where you needed to be anti-Communist to be faithful. We have to be prophetic, not turn into political opponents.”
Bishop Kham, who is also deputy secretary of the bishops’ conference, explains that the current policy of the Vietnamese Church is to try to resolve each dispute locally, on a caseby-case basis, while lobbying the Government to change the property law. The current one, he says, “is not good enough, and creates opportunities for corruption, bribery, oppression of the poor”. Farmers, for example, have often seen their land seized to make way for new urban development projects.
But some priests are afraid that focusing too much on the restitution of church property risks alienating the people, especially nonCatholics, who have so far failed to give their support. “We shouldn’t claim our property but advocate for the rights of the poor. Jesus didn’t have a piece of land,” says Camillian Fr John Toai, who runs a centre for people with HIV.
Fr Toai is at the forefront of what – according to Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân, Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City – is the real challenge for the future of Vietnam’s Church: winning the right to act in the fields of education and health care. “Despite progress in religious freedom,” he says, “we are still not free to run charitable activities, such as open-
4 | THE TABLET | 3 March 2012