SINGAPORE -- Vietnam's communist authorities have upped the ante in an ongoing dispute with the Catholic Church. Now, they're calling for the removal of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi.
According to the state-run Vietnam News Agency, Nguyen The Thao, chairman of the Hanoi People's Committee, told foreign diplomats Oct. 15 that "a number of priests, led by Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, took advantage of parishioners' beliefs and their own low awareness of the law to instigate unrest."
The unrest he must have been referring to is prayer.
Since late 2007, the archbishop has led prayer vigils across the city, as Vietnam's 6 million Catholics had been protesting the government's moves to turn the former apostolic nunciature in Hanoi into a public park.
Last month, however, the government's reaction to the vigils turned violent, with riot police, stun guns and tear gas used against the gatherings.
Father Peter Khai Van Nguyen is a Redemptorist at the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi, site of one of the vigils and also a location for government-confiscated Church land.
He said that "eight months after promising to restore Church ownership of a building that once housed the office of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi, Vietnamese authorities suddenly begun demolishing the building, provoking the outrage of Catholic protestors and drawing a heated protest from the city's archbishop."
Carl Thayer is a visiting fellow at the AustralianNationalUniversity and is a longtime watcher of Hanoi's politics. "This land dispute has escalated and turned nasty," he said. "The state media have vilified and defamed key Catholic leaders. Officials have organized gangs of revolutionary youth and military veterans to attack Catholics holding peaceful prayer vigils and to deface religious statues."
Secular non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which is at odds with Catholic teaching on abortion, have spoken out about the actions of the communist authorities in Hanoi. In a statement released Oct. 4, Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch's deputy director in Asia, said, "This is the harshest crackdown on Catholics in Vietnam in decades."
Relations between the Church and Vietnam are similar to those in China, where the government, not the Church, determines state-run church appointments. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Vatican in early 2007.
The latest persecution of the Church comes soon after Vietnam won plaudits for its relaxation of restrictions on religious expression, presaging the country's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Hanoi then won a U.N. Security Council seat earlier this year, and it teamed up with China and Russia to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Robert Mugabe's brutal crackdown on the Zimbabwean opposition after elections were held in the African country in spring 2008.
Nina Shea is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan body set up in 1998 to "monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights' and related international instruments and to give independent policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and the Congress."
She said that "a clear example of how trade trumped concern for religious freedom occurred in 2006 on the eve of President Bush's visit to Vietnam for an economic summit, when the State Department removed Vietnam from its short list of the world's worst religious persecutors."
That move has more to do with diplomatic and economic exigencies as U.S.-Vietnam trade expands than real progress on religious freedom.
And Catholics are not the only religious group under pressure. According to Shea, "Religious organizations that resist government control of their leaders, religious texts, activities and rites are banned and experience harsh oppression."
The presence of the autonomous Church is likely seen by the Communist Party as an intolerable challenge to state authority at a time of economic weakness. Vietnam's rulers have taken a path somewhat akin to China, coupling selective free-market reforms with continued political authoritarianism.
"Party conservatives are invariably concerned about reforming too fast and provoking political instability," Thayer said. "Now that inflation has risen and social problems have arisen, such as record strikes in the garment and textile industries, party conservatives are once again voicing concerns about political stability. Any activism that is pro-democracy or related to religious freedom is viewed as ‘part of the plot by hostile external forces to overthrow the socialist regime.'"
In early October, the Communist Party Central Committee held a summit meeting to discuss the growing economic crisis and gave the party's Politburo oversight of the economy until the end of this year, taking policy out of the hands of the Dung government.
Protestant missionaries in Vietnam's north have also worried the Politburo, with conversions evoking the drift to Catholicism promoted by French missionaries in the 1800s, which undermined the then-Confucian elite in the mainly-Buddhist country.
Some Buddhist movements have also been targets of the government's ire. Arrests of religious leaders continue, and in its most recent report on Vietnam, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined its view "that in all of the most recent cases of arrest, imprisonment and other detention, religious leaders and religious freedom advocates had engaged in actions protected by international human rights instruments."
And Vietnam is playing hardball not just with the Church. A prominent journalist was jailed for his role in exposing a multimillion dollar corruption scandal in which aid money donated from the World Bank and the European Union, among others, was used by senior and middle-ranking transport officials to bet on soccer matches in England.
Nguyen Viet Chien, a reporter with the daily newspaper Thanh Nien, was sentenced to two years in jail for exposing the scandal, work which the courts declared to be an "abuse of democratic freedoms."
Other reporters, apparently eager to appease the government after Chien's incarceration, have begun concocting stories that a majority of Vietnam's Catholics are at odds with those attending the prayer vigils, even as support gatherings spring up at Catholic churches elsewhere in Vietnam.
Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, in a pastoral letter sent to all Catholic priests, religious and faithful of the Archdiocese of Saigon, described the state-run media coverage of the vigils as "serving the privileges of the powerful, and of parties, not the common good of the nation."
Long Le teaches Vietnamese studies at the University of Houston. He outlined the government's approach to freedom of religion.
"Vietnam promotes the country's religious traditions to draw foreign travelers to Vietnam's cathedrals, temples and pagodas, while religious groups are still being persecuted," he said.
Cardinal Pham Minh Man said in a statement: "There has been distorted or truncated information as in the land dispute at the former apostolic nunciature. Coming from our desire to actively contribute to the country's stable and sustainable development, we would like to share these thoughts with our fellow Christians and all people of good will and sincere hearts.
"We firmly believe that when we together work to build the country on the basis of justice, truth and love, Vietnam our country will become more prosperous, bring happiness and wealth to everyone and construct a better world."