By Arlene Edmonds
Special to The CS&T
Persecution against Catholics in North Vietnam has increased during the past week. While many Christians around the world lament over the Wall Street crisis, the local Vietnamese Catholic community’s focus is on the safety of their loved ones in cities like Hanoi. This calamity, unfortunately, is not getting the global attention that it deserves, according to Redemptorist Father Luyen Dau.
Consequently, Father Dau, parochial vicar at Visitation B.V.M. Parish in Philadelphia, hopes that the Archdiocese’s parishes will remember their Vietnamese counterparts in prayer this week. Also, as they contact their congresspersons about the state of the world’s financial affairs and reach out to those running for federal offices on Election Day, that they will remind them that religious freedom in Vietnam is also a critical issue.
“We need the prayers of everyone in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” said Father Dau. “We need prayers that justice and peace will come to Catholics in Hanoi. The Redepemptiorists in Thai Ha Parish are suffering intense persecution by the communist government in Vietnam. We pray that God may come to change the hearts of the communist leaders, so that they will see that what they are doing is wrong.”
It was on Sept. 22 that news accounts reported that communist authorities in Hanoi had threatened to take legal action against the city’s Archbishop unless he immediately disbanded prayer vigils to demand the return of former Church property. The government’s campaign against Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet has escalated over the past week.
State controlled newspapers quoted a letter to Archbishop Kiet from Hani Mayor Nguyen The Thao, accusing him of instigating unrest. “Stop your illegal acts immediately or you will be dealt with according to the law,” Thao was quoted as writing. “You have a responsibility to persuade priests and parishioners to abide by the law.”
Prayer is only allowed at church under current Vietnamese law. The reports did not specify what form the legal action for breaking this law might take. There are currently 6 million Catholics in Vietnam. It is the country’s second largest faith after Buddhism.
Catholics have been holding sporadic prayer vigils this year to demand the return of two plots of land once owned by the Church. The property was seized decades ago by communist authorities. One plot is near Thai Ha Church, not far from the center of Hanoi. The other is a site of the former Vatican Embassy, next to St. Joseph Cathedral, the city’s largest church.
The Catholic land disputes are among many land issues that arose after Vietnam’s communist government took power in 1954. The government seized many properties from private landowners, including the Catholic Church. Recent prayer vigils have put great pressure on Hanoi officials, who want to project an image of religious tolerance amid political control.
On Friday, Sept. 19, Hanoi began bulldozing the grounds of the former Vatican Embassy to clear the land for a public park and library. During the subsequent weekend the crowds grew as hundreds of Catholics attended weekend Masses at St. Joseph Cathedral. They were closely watched by riot police and other security officers.
Father Dau added that during his weekly e-mails from Vietnamese relatives, who live outside of Hanoi, they have revealed that they are being harassed by authorities for any prayer activity – including private prayer at home and other venues. One relative shared that when she asked why she could not pray she was told by a law enforcement officer that all praying is now illegal, according to the parochial vicar.
“This is very serious,” said Father Dau. “We need to ask our U.S. Senators and Representatives to (intervene). This is a diplomatic foreign affairs matter. They could pressure the government not to terrorize the Catholics for praying. Those who try to go to a prayer site or a chapel are in danger. The government is getting very ugly in forcing people not to pray.”
Father Dau hopes that the Catholic school community will also say prayers for the rights of Catholics in Vietnam. He hopes that the students will embark on a letter writing campaign to encourage local elected officials to put economic pressure on Vietnam if they limit freedom of religion for Catholics.
The Federation of Vietnamese Catholics has already sent out an urgent letter of appeal to clergy, those in the mass media, as well as social justice advocates recently.
It is signed by Msgr. Peter Nguyen Van Tai, director of Radio Veritas Asia in the Philippines; Father John Tran Cong Nghi, director of Viet Catholic News Agency in California; Father Joachim Nguyen Due Veit Chau, director of People of God in America in Los Angeles; Father Anthony Nguyen Hau Quan, director of People of God in Australia; Father Stephane Bui Thirong Liru, director of People of God in Europe; and Father Paul Van Chi Chu, director of Gospel and Peace Radio in Sydney, Australia.
This Sept. 26 correspondence outlines the attack on Hanoi Catholics that began to escalate on Friday, Sept. 19. It then traces the plight of Hanoi Catholics, who have been organizing daily prayer vigils outside the former nunciature in Hanoi. Since last week, however, the prayers have met with increased resistance.
“We want to tell the communist government that prayer for peace and justice is not a crime,” said Father Dau. “We want to say that threatening people by taking away their right to pray and their dignity as a Christian is a crime. Every Catholic deserves to be able to pray without the officials trying to stop them or having to be abused if they do. The Catholics in Hanoi and all over Vietnam deserve the religious freedom that we enjoy in our country.”
Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and a member of St. Raymond of Penafort Parish. She may be reached at ArleneEdmonds@aol.com.