Newly baptized Catholics hold candles at a church in Hoa Binh, Vietnam, Jan. 21, 2015. (CNS photo/Kham, Reuters)
month, the president of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang, met with Pope Francis for a
private audience at the Vatican. Though the meeting was described by the Holy
See Press Office as “cordial,” relations between Rome and Vietnam have been
bumpy for the last several decades. One of five remaining Communist nations,
Vietnam has been ranked as the world’s 20th most oppressive country for
Christians by the non-profit Open Doors USA. And yet the nation’s Catholic
populationwhich has been listed at roughly seven millioncontinues to grow.
Portuguese Catholic missionaries came to Vietnam in the early 1500s, it was
French Jesuits in the following century who had the first significant success
in winning converts and establishing a Church presence.
Vietnam split in 1954, many thousands of Catholics headed from Communist North
Vietnam into South Vietnam. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the two
sections reunified under a Communist government.
Church persevered, though, and there now are 26 dioceses and three
archdioceses, along with more than 2,600 priests and 2,200 parishes, according
would agree that Vietnam is not as repressive as it was in 1975. That said, “Strong
authoritarian rule [tolerates] no dissent, especially not from ethnic or
religious minorities… As a result, human rights violations continue to accrue,”
reports the Christian persecution watchdog group Voice of the Martyrs.
In 2014 it was reported that the Vietnamese government has actively
tried to create dissension among Christians. In one case, the government
organized a fake Catholic organization to influence the Church from within.
There also have been incidences of Vietnamese Catholics being physically
coerced into renouncing their faith.
2016, shortly before President Obama’s visit to the country, a prominent
dissident priest, Nguyen Van Ly, was given early release from prison. His
liberation was “widely seen as a goodwill gesture” ahead of the President’s
much-anticipated arrival, according to the Associated Press.
months before Obama’s visit, the Catholic press agency AsiaNews reported that a
Catholic priest was severely beaten by a group of 20 assailants. In a separate
incident, a Benedictine monastery was ransacked and its monks were assaulted, AsiaNews reported.
Catholic news outlet UCANews reports
that Catholics were attacked by police while gathering for prayer at a private
residence on June 19 of this year. It was the third incident of this sort
within a month.
October 2015 UCANews article describes a scene of uncertainty and vicissitude for
Vietnamese Catholicism: “What is permissible in some areas may be met with jail
time in others. Authorities who look the other way for years might suddenly
decide to crack down without warning.”
article, however, describes a Church on the rise. Catholic-run schools continue
to spread, “normalizing the religion in the eyes of millions.” The number of Jesuits
in the country has increased nearly tenfold since 1975.
such normalization, a 2013 Ecumenical News article reported that large numbers of Vietnamese Catholics are fleeing
to Australia to escape religious religious persecution. That report states
that, following a period of loosening restrictions at the turn of the 21st
century, “the situation in Vietnam in recent years for Catholics and other
Christians has deteriorated.”
not everyone feels that the situation has “deteriorated.” Father Joachim Hien,
a priest of the Spokane, Washington, diocese, says he has seen a marked
improvement in the Vietnamese Church’s position in recent decades.
is intimately acquainted with both Vietnamese and Church history. His hometown
is Da Nang, a major port city in Vietnam, but he was born in 1946 in a mountain
village, where his mother had taken refuge from French bombardment.
time, both his father (the leader of Catholic Action in Central Vietnam) and
his uncle (a Christian Brother and director of a major LaSalle college in the
South) had been taken as prisoners. They later would escape captivity, and his
father would ultimately become the principal of the cathedral school in Da Nang
the seminary at age 11, Hien was ordained in Vietnam in December 1974, just
four months before the Vietnam War ended. As a vulnerable “baby priest” in a
newly reunified Communist Vietnam, he was dispatched to the US, where he was
stationed briefly in Arkansas and Seattle, before arriving in 1977 in Spokane,
where he has served in several parishes.
Hien officially retired in 2012, but continues to remain active in the
Vietnamese Catholic community and travels to many related events.
“The Church in Vietnam has made major inroads in education and
health,” he says, though he acknowledges that “media is still strongly in the
hands of the government.”
the current relationship between the Church and the government, he says it’s
“not as tense as it used to be in the 1970s and 80s… After many years of
tension, the situation has improved since about 1990…[the Church and
government] can live together now.”
government “used to use spies and tap phones.” But these practices are no
longer nearly so pervasive.
can even say something against Communism,” Father Hien said. “Priests do a lot
of protesting,” whether it’s against political corruption or in favor of environmental
protections. Such criticism is fair game, “just as long as they don’t try to
stir up any [organized] revolt.” He adds that Communist ideology in Vietnam is
currently “not as strong” as it is in China.
Vatican does not have full-scale diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but in
recent years the government has accepted a “non-residential representative.”
November 23, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang met with Pope Francis at the
Vatican, in a meeting that was described by the Vatican press office as a “cordial” one during
which “the good relations between the Holy See and Vietnam were recalled.”
Vietnam’s troublingly high ranking on the list of countries that persecute
Christians, Hien says that the nation’s secret policestill going strongis
likely a huge factor. He points out, though, that the secret police are “not
openly rounding up people like in the past.”
said, the government still has a tight grip on mass media. The Church can
circulate its own “yearbooks, newsletters, bulletins, and magazines, but it’s
not allowed any national radio or newspaper,” Father Hien said.
longstanding media restrictions, the view of the Church has improved in the
eyes of non-Catholic Vietnamese, and the Catholic faith is no longer associated
with French colonialism.
propaganda spread by Communists back in the 1950s,” Father Hien says. “These
days, the Vietnamese people see the Church as part of the Vietnamese tradition,
and even non-Catholics respect the Church for its charity work.” He adds,
“Government officers send their kids to Catholic schools, where they know their
children will receive the best education.”
is especially optimistic about seminaries in Vietnam, reflecting on how, “in
the old days, any seminary had to ask permission” to enroll a seminarian.
government allows many young men to go to the seminary, and you can ordain
anyone you want,” he said. “The Church is growing with evangelization. There
are tons of young people entering the religious vocation. Seminaries have
become very selective. There are 1,000 candidates waiting to enter one
particular seminary outside Saigon.”
a trend among recent seminarians, Father Hien remarks, “More people from the
rural areas go into the religious vocation. Less so in the cities,” where
people have a greater chance of being enticed by materialism.
of any urban distractions, Father Hien describes Catholic churches in Vietnam
as “prosperous and packed.” In the southern city of Saigon (officially known as
Ho Chi Minh City), where Catholics have traditionally enjoyed the highest
amount of freedom, “there are churches right and left every two seconds.”
recalls that, “Even during the fiercest government repression,” Christmas in
Saigon was a festive affair. And these days, “Christmas in Saigon is more
celebratory than in Rome.”