Religious organisations are required to provide a list of annual activities in advance. Local authorities turned on Song Ngọc parish for failing to inform them of a Mass. The state paid no heed to the opinions expressed by religious institutions on its controversial religious law.
Hanoi (AsiaNews) – The Mass celebrated on 23 January in Song Ngọc parish, in the diocese of Vinh, has been declared "illegal” by the People's Committee of Quỳnh Ngọc, a municipality in the north-central province of Nghệ An.
In an official note, the authorities censure the vicar and the parish’s pastoral committee, ordering Fr Nguyễn Đình Thục and his parishioners to "register all their religious activities" in accordance with a local bylaw (N.08/UBND).
Last week, the vicar had invited about 20 priests from the diocese to celebrate Mass in the parish. During the service, priests and faithful prayed for the victims of the environmental disaster at a plant owned by the Formosa Plastics Group.
They also mentioned in their prayers prisoners of conscience, like Hoàng Đức Bìnhe and Nguyễn Nam Phong, and called for peace in all Vietnamese families.
At the same time, parishioners prayed that local authorities be able to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, and that the government behave in a fair way towards those who are committed to the peace of the nation.
Local authorities have been trying for a long time to stifle the religious life of the local community, which has fought for social rights and justice in the country, speaking out on behalf of dissidents who disagree with the government.
The People’s Committee of Quỳnh Ngọc sent the document on the afternoon of 23 January 2018, and Fr Thục and the Song Ngọc Parish Pastoral Committee of parish celebrated Mass with many participants and parishioners.
In their note, local authorities cite the new Law on Belief and Religion that came into effect on 1st January 2018. They cited Article 43 to say that “Religious organizations, dependent religious organisations, […] or religious organisations which have been granted the certificates of registration of religious activities have a duty to provide in writing the lists of annual religious activities at least 30 days after being recognised, approved or granted a certificate of registration of religious activity as prescribed” by the government.
Some officials claim that Song Ngọc parish has not yet informed the People's Committee of its programme. As a result, they view the Mass celebrated by the community as contravening the provisions of the new law on religious freedom. By contrast, for local Catholics, "Article 43 is an expedient to obstruct the religious activities of the parish and of the faithful."
The community has often been the victim of sometimes violent interference and pressure from the authorities through pro-government militant groups, as well as smear campaigns, such as the one against Fr Thuc.
Article 2, paragraph 10 of the law backs the parishioners of Song Ngọc, thus highlighting the its inconsistencies.
According to this provision, "Religious activities are to express religious beliefs, catechism practice, practicing canon law and religious rituals. So, the participation in the Mass of believers, communion and prayer together are ‘religious activities’ that take place every day, every hour in the country.” Thus, such practices in themselves already comply with the law of the state.
Before Vietnam’s parliament passed its new controversial legislation, the country’s religious leaders contributed to the discussions with their opinions in order to protect religious freedom, a principle recognised in the 2013 Constitution.
Starting in June 2017, organisations, legal experts and believers of various faiths shared their views with the Speaker and Members of the National Assembly. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam also made an important contribution.
Yet, critics note that the authorities "simply pretended to listen to the advice offered to improve the bill". Believers and rights activists complain that the government later ignored the views expressed by religious organisations. This has allowed local authorities "to apply the Law on Belief and Religion as they please".