01/25/2007, 00.00
VATICAN - VIETNAM
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Holy See and Hanoi: a history of laboured relations

by Franco Pisano
Since the end of the war, things have gone from persecution, to hostility, to the search for collaboration, even if there are still forms and places of repression. The “no” to John Paul II in 1998.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The Vatican and Vietnam have seen moments of intense tension in their relations, given numerous difficulties and the veritable persecution that the government of Hanoi launched after the country’s unification and despite the fact that Paul VI had intervened on various occasions against US bombings in the North. Pope Montini spared no effort both publicly – through his appeals and in particular through the letters he wrote to President Johnson and the leaders of the two Vietnams (1967) – and privately for a negotiation-based solution to the conflict.
 
Again in October 1998, in response to an invitation by the bishops of Vietnam, John Paul II had expressed his “availability” to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang. But the government made it known that it “did not have intentions to invite the Pope for the moment.”
 
The failed attempt to establish a Chinese-styled Patriotic Association and the Vatican’s deliberate work to convince the government of the usefulness of collaboration with the Catholic Church allowed, on one hand, to find a modus vivendi for the nomination of bishops and, on the other, to gradually make more room for Catholic involvement. The Vietnamese government’s current approach can be seen in relation to the conviction that the Catholic Church can be of help both in assistance to the poor and the handicapped and in the running of nursery schools and health care facilities, all tasks that theoretically are reserved to public institutions. The Church is also looked upon well for the work that it can do in “reviving the soul” of a country which is attempting to deal with various phenomena, in particular the all-out search for personal material wealth and corruption.
 
Prior to Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit today, the official presence at the Vatican of government from Hanoi dated back to two years ago, from June 27 to July 2, 2005, when talks were held with a governmental commission. On that occasion, hopes were expressed that “quick advancements” would be made towards the “normalization” of relations. Prior to that event, it had been the Deputy Prime Minister Wu Khoang to have entered the apostolic palaces, on November 29, 2002 to meet with the then Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Sodano and with John Paul II’s “foreign minister”, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran. Before still, there had been a series of “reserved” meetings, dating as far back as the 1990s.
 
Of significance, at the level of bilateral relations, were also “the most profound condolences to the Vatican, the Catholic community of the entire world and the Catholic faithful in Vietnam,” expressed by Hanoi for the death of John Paul II, in a message sent by Prime Minister Pham Van Khai to the Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. And, the Cathedral in Hanoi was able to set up a giant screen on which the Pope’s funeral could be viewed.
 
 It is also worth noting that Vietnam was able to join the World Trade Organization this year, a step that also depended on improvements in the area of human rights, including religious freedom.
 
The visits to Vietnam by Holy See delegations have been numerous, amounting to 14, at quite regular intervals. The latest, in November 2005, was lead by the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who meet with Vietnamese Vice President Vu Khoan, in Hanoi.
Cardinal Sepe’s visit followed the acceptance by the Vietnamese government of the e the new Ba Ria diocese. During his visit, the cardinal was also able to ordain 57 new priests in Hanoi. Previous to that, in May 2004, upon returning from a mission to Vietnam, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Foreign Under-Secretary, highlighted how “on various occasions, the intention was reinforced in Vietnam to leave the past behind and to look trustingly ahead to the future.”
 
This was confirmed by Cardinal Pham Minh Man, Archbishop of Ho Chi Min City, who in an interview with AsiaNews said that “In November, together with some bishops, I met with the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Nguyen Minh Triet. We discussed and exchanged points of view about religious freedom, property rights, the Church’s responsibilities towards the country’s development, especially in the areas of education and health care. The president promised that the government would gradually meet the right expectations”.
 
This does not take away from the fact that situations of total lack of religious freedom still exist in the more isolated provinces.  An AsiaNews source in the Son La province, in the country’s remotest north-west area on the border with Laos, tells of prohibitions against celebrating mass in public and even against groups gathering together to pray, as well as obstacles and difficulties of all types, including a methodical campaign to defame Catholics. And of government officials who go around explaining that religious activities “are prohibited by law.” Then there is a petition addressed to the Pope, prepared in view of today’s visit and signed by more than 1650 Vietnamese priests, religious and laypeople living in the country and abroad. The document speaks out against persisting government policies that deny religious freedom and human rights. The petition recalls, among other things, decrees in 2004 and 2005 on believers and religions that give, in principle, the government full control on all aspects – state, activities, property and relations – having to do with the life of the Church. 
 
The appeal also highlights the anti-religious activities carried out by the government against the different religions. Numerous are the examples, such as arrests and mistreatment of people in possession of Bibles, confiscation of religious books, the detention of Fr Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly and the question of the terrain around the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang, which is allowed to use only 6.5 hectares of the 23.5 owned by it.
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