Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam
Testimony of Rev. Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly
Before the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
February 13, 2001
Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam
Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honor to be perhaps the first Vietnamese Roman Catholic priest living under a communist regime to testify before your Commission at a location that represents the ideals of democracy. I would like to send my greetings of the New Millennium to you and to the people of the United States.
In the opening statement of the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh tried to win your nation's support by solemnly quoting the second paragraph of Declaration of Independence of the United States: "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
In less than 250 years since her independence, your country has become the shining example of freedom and independence-anyone who wants to know what freedom and independence are only needs to visit your country and her people.
As an eyewitness living in Communist Vietnam for more than 25 years, I would like to boldly and frankly present my ideas on three issues as your invitation letter has suggested.
1. The realities of the religions in Vietnam in the new millennium.
In order to achieve independence, liberty and happiness for the Vietnamese people, Ho Chi Minh chose Communism. This is a fundamental contradiction because Communism calls for a dictatorial regime that does not tolerate the concept of true liberty. Freedom of religion will be absent for as long as the Vietnamese government hangs on to its Communist ideology.
Since their victory of April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese Corrmnunists have extended its oppressive policy toward the different religions to South Vietnam. Laws and decrees have been promulgated to confine, restrict, or ban religious activities. The government has falsely accused clergy members and lay people as a pretext to detain and imprison those who protest its oppressive policy, or those who teach catechism, lead a church choir, or join a seminary. They are banished to concentration camps for years. This policy has been on-going for nearly 50 years (from 1954 to 2001).
The government has used many ruses to divide and politicize the Cao Dai, Catholic and Protestant Churches; to split the Buddhist Church in two-the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and the Buddhist Church of Vietnam (BCV); and to set up the puppet Hoa Hao Buddhist Committee of Representatives, which consists of mainly Communist cadres, to claim leadership over five million Hoa Hao Buddhists. The government has requisitioned for its arbitrary use numerous facilities and properties belonging to the different Churches.
With regard to the Catholic Church, the communists have severely restricted her fundamental rights. The many petitions issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Vietnam (CBCV) since 1980 have unmasked the Government's policy. This I have analyzed in my TenPoint Proclamation released on November 24, 1994 and the follow-up proclamation dated November 24, 2000, which I have sent to your Commission. Following is the summary of the points made in those two statements.
1. The Vietnamese Communists have brutally interfered with CBCV's authority to organize its annual Pastoral Assembly: the Bishops must apply for permission to organize and the Assembly's agenda must be pre-examined by the Government. After the Assembly, the minutes must be submitted to the Government. All reports from the Assembly must be vetted by the Government before they can be released to the Catholic community and the public.
2. The Vietnamese communists have brutally interfered with CBCV's authority to appoint bishops and ordain of priests. The Holy See had to negotiate with the Vietnamese Government for years on each bishop appointment. The Government often rejects candidates selected by the Church and only accepts those they are pleased with. The Government counts on The Vatican having to yield eventually so as to prevent excessive harm to dioceses facing extended absence of a bishop. The dioceses of Hung Hoa, Hai Phong, and Bui Chu ... have not had a bishop for more than eight years and The Vatican is not allowed to appoint any.
Anyone intending to join a seminary or any candidate for priesthood elected by the Church must have the approval of and their background examined by the Public Security Police. These candidates must prove their docility and show no sign of resisting the regime. The police give special preference to those agreeing to serve as informants for the Government within the seminary. An applicant's chance would increase if he can afford to bribe the authorities. Applicants having family members who worked for defunct Republic of Vietnam or holding nonconformist views stand no chance of being approved for admission into a seminary or priesthood regardless of their qualifications and moral virtues and regardless of the Church's support. I know many young men who have repeatedly passed the Churchadministered entrance exam with top scores but have not been approved for admission into any seminary. Any bishop intending to ordain a seminarian into priesthood or to assign a priest to a mission must ask for permission and negotiate with the Government in a protracted process, which in some cases has taken nearly 20 years without results. The approval criteria imposed by the Government has nothing to do with the moral quality that the Church requires of candidates for priesthood. As a result, the number of newly ordained priests has drastically decreased and is currently insufficient to meet the Church's pastoral needs. Aging priests die or retire without successors. Many priests in rural regions have to minister more than ten parishes, all distant from each other. There is hardly normal religious life in these parishes. It is very difficult for priests to change their residence for new assignments.
3. Groups of faithful in new economic zones or in remote areas are anxious to have mass for Christmas and Easter each year but their most basic spiritual need is rarely met. The atheist Government wants these people not to think of religion, which it considers harmful and dangerous.
4. A Mass that brings together the faithful from different places and priests desiring to say mass in places other than their usual assigned location must have prior government pen-nission.
5. The Government still keeps many priests, clergy members, and lay people in prison or under house arrest. (Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam has made this list available to your Commission.)
6. The Government brutally violates the Church's freedom of the press. No local or national publication of the Church is allowed. As a result, The Church cannot fulfill itsevangelical duties. Before 1975, there were more than a dozen Catholic newspapers and magazines in South Vietnam. Today there are only two weekly magazines, Cong Giao & Dan Toe (The Catholics & The People) and Nguoi Cong Giao Viet Nam (The Vietnamese Catholics), which are created and financed by the Government. CBCV's only publication is the newsletter Ban Tin Hiep Thong (The Communion News), of which the first six issues were "illegal." The Government gave the Church temporary permission to publish issues 7-9 from February to September 2000. In October 2000, the government rescinded its permission and discontinued this only publication of The Church. There is no freedom of speech in my country. Churches of course have none. This kind of statement that I am presenting to you cannot be circulated in Vietnam because no photocopying store or printing shop would dare to reproduce it. Nobody dares to keep it, fearing for his own life and the safety of his family. Those who dare must be prepared for martyrdom. In fact, on February 7 the public security police searched two of my assistants and found a floppy disk containing a draft of this statement. These two brave young men were detained overnight at the police station for extensive questioning.
7. The Government forces all students from all grades and in college to study and love Socialism while in fact nobody likes to teach or study it. Only the three million communist party members and the five million members of the Communist League of Youth should study this ideology if they still believe in it. Forcing the entire Vietnamese nation to study a bankrupt ideology that has caused them so much suffering is outright unconscionable.
8. The Communist Government has, since 1954 in North Vietnam and since 1975 in South Vietnam, seized or requisitioned thousands upon thousands of Church facilities used for education, charity, and medical service. Consequently the Church has no means to train seminarians, providing education and human services to the poor, the sick, the handicapped and the orphans, and it is extremely difficult for Church members to deliver service in a government facility. For example, the Pius X Papal Institute in Da Lat, run by the Jesuits, had been an outstanding college for priesthood formation until its confiscation in 1976 by the Government, which turned it into a training school for Communist cadres. The Hoan Thien Minor Seminary at I I Dong Da, Hue, offering high school-level training to seminarians, was taken by force by the Government in December 1979; all three priests teaching at the seminary and more than 80 seminarians were evicted. These are but a few examples.
Faced with this extremely cruel policy of the Vietnamese Communist Government to strangle religions, the Churches in Vietnam have unceasingly demanded religious freedom. Their non-violent and persistent campaign will continue until the Vietnamese people have full religious freedom, which anyone else in the civilized world has. This campaign has the following objectives.
1. The Government must fully respect the right of all citizens to true religious freedom and the right of Churches to select, train, and appoint their own priests, clergy members and dignitaries. The Government must stop its practice of listing the religious affiliation of citizens on their identity cards and personal documents so that no citizen will be discriminated against and be able to freely practice his or her faith.
2. The Government must return all facilities and properties it has confiscated or requisitioned from the Churches, even when documentary evidence of ownership was lost in the war if local people can confinn the rightful owner of these facilities and properties.
3. The Government must abandon the ruses and schemes it has used to oppress and destroy religions. Its interference in Church affairs must cease. Committees created by the government but dressed up as religious institutions in order to serve the Government's antireligion policy must be disbanded.
4. The Government must unconditionally release all clergy members priests officials and dignitaries of the Churches and lay people who are currently in prison or under administrative detention because of their faith.
5. The Government must fully respect every and each article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the Vietnamese Communist Government became a signatory on September 24, 1982.
II. Effects of the Bilateral Trade Agreement on human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam
I am only a priest, not a specialist in economics and politics. I speak as a Vietnamese citizen with a deep love for my country and my people.
Vietnam needs the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) for her economic development. In principle I dearly want my country to have the trust of other countries, among them the United States, so that my country may achieve prosperity and my people may have a better life and fully realize their potentials.
However for as long as the Vietnamese Communists keep their dogmatic and totalitarian rule and disregard the fundamental freedoms of the people as I have presented above, by trading with Vietnam the United States and other countries would only strengthen the Communists' grips on power; the BTA may end up benefiting only the governing minority while prolonging the suffering of the entire people; the vast majority of the common people like us may at best receive small crumbs trickling down from the top but in return must endure our fate of the exploited and disenfranchised for so much longer.
In regard to the ratification of the BTA, I urgently warn the US Congress not to trust the Vietnamese Communists' promise of good faith. The United States and many other countries have had bitter experiences dealing with their broken promises in the past.
The Vietnamese Communists have signed many international accords and agreements on human rights but have never intended to respect them. Their intention is to deceive the international community. For example, Vietnam became signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1982 but does not abide by Articles 18 and 19 of this covenant which call for the respect for the freedoms of thought, speech, and religion. If international human rights institutions allow themselves to fall victim to such deception, they will contribute to the following dire consequences: (1) the Vietnamese Government will exploit their signing the document to falsely claim that there are human rights in Vietnam; (2) these international institutions will lose their credibility as they prove to be so easily deceived; and (3) these institutions unknowingly prolong the Communist oppression of the Vietnamese people-this in fact constitutes a major crime against my people.
Therefore, if the Untied States and other countries truly sympathize with my ill-fated people and truly care about human rights, especially the right to religious freedom, of the Vietnamese people, you must not help the Communist Government prolong its totalitarian rule. Instead, the United States and other countries should suspend all agreements harinful to the Vietnamese people and do everything in your capacity to put pressure on the Vietnamese Government to allow freedom and democracy to dawn on our country.
III. What can be done to help improve freedom of religion in Vietnam in the near term, and in the long term?
The Vietnamese Communists have idolized Ho Chi Minh, turning him into a "god" and creating a new religion revolving around him. The Communist Government wants to suppress all other religions and replace them with this new religion in order to unify the Vietnamese people behind it. In fact, Ho Chi Minh had made significant contributions to our national struggle for independence but at the same time had committed serious crimes against the Vietnamese people. One basic endeavor that the international community needs to undertake is to unravel the harmful myths woven by the Communists around this historical figure.
In the short term, the United States and other countries should help the Churches in Vietnam achieve greater independence from the governinent, should show by example how freedom of religion is respected in the free world, and should expose the oppression that the Vietnamese Government has imposed on the Churches. At first, the Vietnamese Communists may feel that such independence would clash with its totalitarian power but with time it may realize that the power to control and interfere with Church affairs, such as the appointment of priests, should have never been theirs to start with.
The Vietnamese people will not enjoy religious freedom for as long as the Communist regime remains in place. Therefore if the United States and other countries truly desire to see the return of religious freedom to the Vietnamese people, they will need to create favorable conditions for the early demise of the Communist regime.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This is a precious opportunity to speak on behalf of my people, of the different Churches, and of the Catholic Church in particular. I would like to extend my gratitude to you, to the US Congress, and the American people, including some two million VietnameseAmericans, for having given me such an opportunity.
May God bless you, your families, your colleagues, the American people, and your beautiful country. Thank you.
Mr. Chau Nguyen
Overseas Hoa Hao Buddhist Association
Derwood, Maryland, USA
Date: February 13, 2001
Time: 12:00 PM