Government curbs on religion in Vietnam have been a source of tension since the communists took power after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. At that time, the communist leaders either closed or imposed strict controls on places of worship, and sent many religious leaders to re-education camps.
Despite the improvements in Western relations with Vietnam, recent reports suggest that religious repression remains universal. A quarter century on, the government continues to impose controls over the training and appointment of priests, a cause of frustration for the Catholic community of about 8 million.
A US-based human rights group - Freedom House, located in Washington, DC - recently revealed it has acquired eight secret Vietnamese government documents that prove the communists are trying to undermine religion, contrary to its public pronouncements.
Freedom House said the documents, dated between 1998 and 2000, showed "a concerted and ongoing government campaign to arrest and reverse the country's growing Christian movements ... Although Vietnam is a signatory to international conventions on human rights that guarantee religious freedom, the documents provide irrefutable evidence that repression continues to drive day to day policy and practice."
The documents primarily address Protestant Christianity's spread among the Hmong ethnic minority living in remote highland areas.
One document, issued by the Bureau of Religious and Minority Affairs in the northern province of Lao Cai bordering China, included ten recommendations to control the spread of Christianity, including "working hard to control religious leaders" as well as improved propaganda efforts. It expressed concern that Christian churches had helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Despite diplomatic breakthroughs with the United States and other Western nations in recent years, religious persecution is said to have intensified over the past few months, although the Vietnamese foreign affairs ministry has dismissed the documents as "distorted and slan-derous."
On the very day US President Bill Clinton visited the Catholic Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) last November to discuss religious liberty, security police were breaking up a quiet worship service in the home of a Protestant house-church leader. And earlier the same day police raided the worship service of Grace Church, a house church organisation, being held in the home of Rev Nguyen Ngoc Hien, according to the Compass Direct agency. Authorities confiscated Bibles, threatened those attending the worship service, and seized Rev Nguyen's identity card.
During his brief meeting at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with President Clinton, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh M‰n spoke about the difficulties the Catholic Church continues to suffer at the hands of the Communist regime in Vietnam.
According to Compass Direct, violations of religious liberty have been continuing, especially among Protestant communities. In Phu Yen province, six Christians were fined, for meeting in a home for Christian worship. A Hmong Christian named Sung Seo Choa, 42, of Xin Man in Ha Giang province, was sentenced last September to 24 months of labour and re-education. The official decision paper stated he was sentenced because he "continually preaches religion illegally after being educated many times not to do so."
At a time of rapid economic growth, many young Vietnamese have been turning to Christianity to fill the spiritual void. "More and more young people are coming," said Father Stanislas Nguyen Duc Ve of the Church of St Francis Xavier. "With our society opening up, they have more opportunities to attend church."
However, Freedom House said the documents it released show Vietnam's public statements on religious liberty bear "little resemblance to its internal practices. Vietnam's policies ... are driven by the assumption that Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are seamlessly connected with Vietnam's imperialist enemies past, present, real and imagined."