SINGAPORE – The Jan. 13 jailing of Catholic writers and political-reform activists in Vietnam has once again spotlighted the attitude of the country’s communist rulers toward political dissent and religious freedom.

The situation in the country gained further attention Jan. 22, when Pope Benedict XVI received Nguyen Phu Trong, the secretary general of Vietnam’s Communist Party, at a Vatican audience.

After a high-security trial on Jan. 9 in Vinh, in central Vietnam, where the group of 14 faced charges, including violating Article 79 of Vietnam’s constitution — a vague stipulation banning “subversion of the administration” — the detainees were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 13 years.

“These writers and peaceful activists were condemned with the severe sentences when they just simply exercised their rights,” says Father Paul Van Chi Chu, a Vietnamese priest based in Australia and a former prisoner in Vietnam.

After the sentencing, journalist-focused NGO Reporters Without Borders — known by the French acronym RSF — said it could prove the innocence of Paulus Le Son, who writes for Vietnam Redemptorist News and is arguably the best known of the group.

The government alleged that Paulus Le Son had ties with the U.S.-based Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party), saying he attended a Viet Tan meeting in Thailand in 2011.

Hanoi authorities regard Viet Tan — whose Vietnam-based membership is said to operate clandestinely — as terrorists. The party has long since dropped its call for any uprising against the Vietnamese government, but, says Bill Hayton, author of Vietnam: Rising Dragon, any association with the group is red line for the Communist Party.

“Viet Tan represents the biggest organized challenge to communist rule in Vietnam; it has a long-term agenda, a serious modus operandum and funding,” Hayton said.

Catholics Targeted?

RSF reported in a Jan. 11 posting on its website that “Paulus Le Son did not attend a Viet Tan event between 25 and 30 July 2011 for the simple reason that he was attending a training course organized by Reporters Without Borders in Bangkok.”

The report went on to say that the jailed “are paying the price of the relentless victimization conducted by the government to silence dissident voices, which mostly affects bloggers, in particular Catholic networks.”

According to Article 19, a freedom-of-speech organization, six of the others jailed wrote for or attended trainings given by Vietnam Redemptorist News.

The 8 million or so Catholics living in the Southeast Asian country make up the second-biggest Catholic population in the region after the Philippines.

The sentences perhaps shed some light on conditions for Catholics in Vietnam, where Catholicism is one of five officially approved religions.

Perhaps the best-known Catholics jailed in Vietnam are Father Nguyen Van Ly, who has been in and out of jail since 1977 on various charges related to his political activism, and Hanoi-based lawyer Le Quoc Quan, who was arrested on tax charges on Dec. 27, 2012, and has been held incommunicado since then. The priest was granted medical parole in 2010, after suffering several strokes in prison that left him partly paralyzed, but he was sent back to jail in 2011.

In the years leading up to the Vietnam War, the Catholic-dominated South Vietnam administration of Ngo Dình Diem — who was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup — was seen as discriminating against Buddhists, partly prompting the enmity of North Vietnamese communists, who eventually reunited the country in 1975 after a bloody war involving the United States.

Though Vietnam and the Vatican have not yet established diplomatic relations, ties between the two have improved in recent years, as witnessed by the papal audience granted to the Communist Party’s secretary general. Both Vietnam’s president and prime minister have met previously with the Pope, leading to the establishment of a bilateral working group and the appointment of Italian Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli as the Pope’s representative to Vietnam.

The plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) met in Vietnam in December, bringing together more than 100 bishops from across Asia and the Vatican.

Less Oppressive

Vietnam’s communist party does not try to control the Catholic Church to the same extent as its Chinese counterpart, and, unlike China, it does not force Vietnamese Catholics to join a government-manufactured “patriotic” Catholic Church such as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

According to Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, quoted after a 2006 visit to Vietnam, “There is one big difference from Vietnam. In the latter, there has never been a patriotic association of Catholics.”

In practice, however, Vietnam’s government tries to control Church appointments, according to the 2012 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which said that “the government maintains veto power over appointments of bishops, but often cooperates with the Vatican in the appointment process.”

Leaked diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi suggest that now-retired Cardinal Bernard Law negotiated the resignation of Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, which Pope Benedict XVI accepted in May 2010.

Archbishop Ngo had angered the Vietnamese government when campaigning to recover sequestered Church property, leading to high-profile vigils and a violent 2008 stand-off on the grounds of the Redemptorist Thai Ha church in Hanoi, the former papal nuncio’s residence, much of which has been confiscated by the government.

New Religious Law

A new religious law, which came into effect on Jan. 1, has raised fears among religious-freedom advocates that Vietnam is trying to tighten restrictions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based organization that monitors religious freedom and lobbies governments on behalf of persecuted Christians, said that it is deeply concerned about the vague and restrictive content of the new law, comparing it with Chinese government curbs.

Vietnam’s government appears shaken, after being backed into making unprecedented public apologies in recent months amid a struggling economy and embarrassing corruption scandals at big state-owned businesses.

In a New Year’s message, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung admitted to “shortcomings in the government’s management” and “economic structural weaknesses,” but rumors of in-fighting among the ruling party’s elite have prompted a government backlash against writers and blogs that are critical of the ruling party, with Catholics apparently caught up in a wider dragnet.

On Dec. 28, sentences were upheld against writers Nguyen Van Hai (known by the pen name Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai and Mary Ta Phong Tan, founders of the Free Journalism Club, which unsurprisingly is banned by the government.

Mary Ta Phong Tan is a former policewoman and convert to Catholicism, whose mother burnt herself to death last year in protest of her daughter’s arrest.

Meeting With the Pope

During their Jan. 22 audience, Pope Benedict and Vietnamese Communist Party leader Trong discussed issues of mutual interest to the Vatican and Vietnam.

“Most Vietnamese will say, ‘Well, this is just another meeting,’ but it’s the first time a secretary general — the most powerful member of the Communist Party — visits the Pope,” Father Cuong Pham, a priest of Vietnamese descent, told Catholic News Agency Jan. 22.

Added Father Pham, “I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt that there is a sincere desire to improve relations and engage the Church with the Holy See.”

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