DAILY CATHOLIC TUESDAY October 27, 1998 vol. 9, no. 210
NEWS & VIEWS
VIETNAM BISHOPS ASK GOVERNMENT TO INVITE POPE DESPITE THE FACT THERE IS "NOTHING NEW" IN VIET POLICY ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Hanoi (CWNews.com) - The Bishops' Conference of Vietnam has decided to extend an official invitation to Pope John Paul II to visit Vietnam in 1999, asking the Communist government to approve the invitation, according to the Vatican news agency Fides.
If approved, the Holy Father may visit the country in August 1999, to conclude celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of La Vang. Last March, Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung of Hanoi made an informal request to the government to invite Cardinal Etchegaray for the opening celebrations on the Feast of the Assumption, on August 15, but he was "advised" not to make an official request.
The decision to invite the Holy Father was reached unanimously by the Bishops' Conference during an October 11-18 meeting in the capital. The bishops have also asked the government whether they may continue to be members of the Federation of Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Any relations with "foreign religious organizations" are in fact subject to government approval. All the activities of the Vietnamese Bishops' Conference are government-approved and controlled, including even the date, place, and order of the day of meetings.
But there is much work to be done for although the Vietnamese government has promised to institute new policies allowing religious freedom, a new government decree does nothing to lift restraints on religious exercise, according to the Vatican's Fides new agency.
Government officials in Hanoi readily admit that the current policy restraining religious affairs-- based on a decree issued in 1991-- is unsatisfactory. For some months, the government's Religious Affairs Bureau has been promising a new, more open policy. But when a draft of the new decree appeared in print on October 1, the 38-point document contained nothing new, Fides reported.
"On careful reading it is clear that this new decree is no different from the previous one, either in contents (it is a decree, not a law) or in its style," Fides reports. The Vatican agency, an affiliate of the Congregation for Evangelization, quotes Vietnamese priests as saying that the only change is in the organization of the document; the new decree sets down government policy on more individual points than the 1991 version, and the October draft covers all religious affiliations, whereas the earlier decree mentioned only Buddhism-- the most popular religion in Vietnam-- explicitly.
The fundamental point, however, remains unchanged: In Vietnam, all religious activities still require official government approval.
For Catholics, another source of concern is the new decree's effort to distinguish between a "Vietnamese Catholic Church" and the universal Church. As in China, the government in Vietnam has sought to establish a "patriotic" Catholic association, without ties to the Holy See. The new decree contributes to that cause by saying, "Legal religious organizations within the country must obtain civil authority permission to put into practice religious guidelines coming from foreign religious organizations." Since the Vatican is defined as a "foreign religious organization," the practical effect of this policy is to make it illegal for Vietnamese Catholic bishops to enact policies set by Rome. For the immediate future, that policy will probably prevent Vietnamese Catholics from participating in preparations for the Jubilee Year 2000-- or, at least, from doing so without defying the law and risking arrest.
The proposed new decree proclaims that religious believers in Vietnam are free to profess their faith, convene public gatherings, print religious literature, and carry out social activities. However, after proclaiming those freedoms, the decree goes on to say that these activities require explicit government approval in every case. As Fides observes, the decree "would seem to be more of a 'trap'-- religious freedom is proclaimed and then withdrawn, secured under the shield of government authority."
Fides cites three specific areas in which government policies may be more restrictive, despite general claims of freedom:
1) The new decree announces that every individual will be free to choose and practice his religion. However, the government has rarely given authorization for young men to enter seminaries, or for pastors to take up their duties in the parishes to which they have been assigned. The government has also resisted Vatican appointments of new bishops.
2) The new decree smashes hopes that the government might return confiscated parish properties to the churches. Instead, the document insists that these properties were "offered" to the state, and will remain under government control.
3) The decree also implicitly rejects a request, made repeatedly by the country's Catholic bishops, for permission to set up a religious publishing house. All religious literature must be printed under the auspices of the government's Religious Affairs Bureau; no independent publisher will be authorized.
Articles provided through Catholic World News Service.
NEWS & VIEWS