Progress and Struggle For Vietnam's Catholics

A choir rehearses at the 19th-century cathedral in Phat Diem, the center of Catholicism in northern Vietnam. Priests remain in short supply.
A choir rehearses at the 19th-century cathedral in Phat Diem, the center of Catholicism in northern Vietnam. Priests remain in short supply. (By Ellen Nakashima -- The Washington Post)
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 23, 2005

YEN KHANH, Vietnam -- As organ music filled the 115-year-old Catholic church, the Rev. Joseph Tran Van Khoa faced more than 1,000 worshipers and raised his arms. The overflow crowd began to sing.

Khoa, who once studied in secret to become a priest in this communist country, beamed.

The ability to celebrate Mass in the open demonstrates that the Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam is freer than it was in 1975, when its activities were severely proscribed after the communists took control of the unified country. Seventeen years ago, Khoa recalled, he conducted Mass in a small room in the back of a church with 20 or so people. The police questioned him monthly, he said, to ensure he did not hold services openly.

"Life for the Catholic Church is a lot easier now," said Khoa, 44. "But I know that we have a really long way to go."

Vietnam has Southeast Asia's second-largest Roman Catholic population after the Philippines, with an estimated 5 million to 8 million followers. But the government still requires consultation on the appointment of bishops and the selection of candidates for the priesthood. Catholic primary and secondary schools have not been reopened. Catholic-run health clinics and kindergartens in the north remain few. Though Vietnam exchanges delegations with the Vatican for annual visits, it does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

On the other hand, priests are allowed to travel within the country, and Catholics worship freely in their churches. A 2004 Ordinance on Religion loosened various restrictions on religious groups -- allowing them, for example, to conduct charitable activities.

At a time of transition for Catholics worldwide, church members in Vietnam are hoping the government will continue to ease restrictions and further promote its relationship with the Vatican. The Catholic Church, which is officially recognized, has more freedom than some other religions.

Human rights activists and dissidents criticize the government's treatment of other religious groups -- a banned Buddhist church, "house church" Protestants who meet secretly in private homes, and ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces.

The United States designated Vietnam a "country of particular concern" last year, mostly because of such religious restrictions.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who has heralded a new era of relations during a current visit to the United States, said in an interview in Hanoi last week that Vietnam was tolerant of all religions.

"We have six major religions with about 20 million followers," Khai said. "We also have pursued a policy of national unity, including unity among religions. It is the religions themselves that have made great contributions to national liberation and national reconstruction."

In February, the prime minister issued what is called an instruction, allowing house churches to operate legally if they renounced connections to alleged anti-government groups. The government also issued a decree aimed at ensuring that local officials enforced the 2004 ban on forced renunciations of faith.

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