Vietnam's Story of Corruption and Martyrdom

Director of AsiaNews Tells of Tolerance and Violence

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ROME, JUNE 13, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Religious freedom is perhaps growing in Vietnam, but it depends on the caprices of the government.

So more than religious freedom, says Father Bernardo Cervellera, we can speak of a certain religious tolerance.

The director of AsiaNews explained this in an interview with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Q: Some 10% of the Vietnamese population is Catholic. Things have improved, but is religious freedom possible in Vietnam today?

Father Cervellera: There are some improvements, for example, in the past few years the seminaries, which before were limited to a fixed number of candidates, have now been opened and there are more and more vocations. There is also a certain tolerance of the government toward, for example, medical care provided by the sisters, education in kindergartens and so on. I would say tolerance, not permission, [is the correct term]. In some ways there is more freedom but all these freedoms depend on the will of the government, which sometimes will allow or withdraw it.

Q: But there is still violence against Christians?

Father Cervellera: In some areas of Vietnam, for example in the north and among the hill tribes, there is still violence. In Sung La and other dioceses, and other smaller cities and villages, Catholics cannot celebrate Masses for Christmas or Easter and are prohibited from having catechesis and teaching their children the faith because the local government does not allow any expression of faith at all. In practical terms, they want to destroy the Catholic faith.

Q: From where do you get your information?

Father Cervellera: Our information comes from sources inside Vietnam. It is very dangerous for them to send us this information. Various dioceses in Vietnam have also been courageous enough to publish on their Internet sites news and speeches from their bishops, evaluations and criticism of some violations of religious freedom -- so through these Internet sites, we are also able to get news.

Q: You write in AsiaNews that anti-Catholic violence is often a consequence of corruption?

Father Cervellera: Most of the violence against the Catholic Church now in Vietnam happens because of graft and corruption of the Communist Party cadres. Vietnam is in transition. Prior to this transition there was a centralized communist economy. Now they are moving toward a capitalistic economy and because of this, many cadres of the Communist Party are taking over and becoming owners of buildings, which before belonged to the churches -- even Buddhist temples or buildings of other faiths. This is illegal because the law in Vietnam states that all these buildings or lands that have been expropriated from the Church or others are to be returned when these properties are no longer used by the state.

Q: And there we find the problem?

Father Cervellera: Yes, these communist cadres take these properties to be their own and develop them as resorts or villas to be later sold in the growing real estate market in Vietnam. The Church however is trying to claim these properties back. It has happened in Hanoi, Saigon, Vinh and in many places -- and the Catholics are right in their request. The response of the communist regime has been violent. They arrest, or beat these Catholics who have demanded a return of their lawful properties. A priest was thrown out of the second floor of a building while another priest was beaten into a coma. There is violence and it is a way of muzzling the voices and rights of these Catholics.

Q: Vietnamese Catholics need prayer.

Father Cervellera: Every persecuted Church needs support and first of all through prayer: prayers from the Church around the world because nobody can withstand the suffering and persecution from a lack of religious freedom without the strength that prayer gives. There is also another consideration: the fact that Vietnam now is becoming more and more a country with many international business relations -- these business relations should also be an avenue to communicate the importance of human rights and respect for religious freedom. In this way business will be better because, if freedom of religion is absent then all the other aspects of human rights, and also the freedom to engage in economic endeavors, is in peril.

Q: Is Vietnam's history of martyrdom one reason why the Church is growing rapidly?

Father Cervellera: I think so. Vietnam is, with China, one of the most persecuted Churches in Asia, at least in the last few centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were, perhaps, 200,000 Vietnamese martyrs. This martyrdom has been the seed for a new life of the Church. The second aspect that I think makes the life of the church in Vietnam so strong is its unity.

Q: Where does this unity come from?

Father Cervellera: This unity comes from the education that the Jesuits gave to them and also from the witnesses in the Church to the people of Vietnam throughout the history of the Church in Vietnam. Church personalities today receive more trust than government officials.

Q: One of the great witnesses was Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận. Can you tell us something about his life?

Father Cervellera: He is one of the greatest personalities in contemporary Vietnam. François Nguyễn Văn Thuận was a priest and he became bishop some months before the invasion of the North Vietnamese into the South. He was the auxiliary bishop of Saigon during that period. Bishop Văn Thuận gave all to the service of the people in the South: to the poor, to children, for education, for the building of houses and so on.

Q: Why then was he put in prison?

Father Cervellera: He was imprisoned, first of all, because he was a relative of the last president of South Vietnam and secondly, because he was a bishop. He was a passionate advocate for his people and the people followed him, and this is why he was imprisoned for 13 years of which nine were spent in solitary confinement. Bishop Văn Thuận -- later Cardinal Văn Thuận -- wrote a great book, a journal, about his time in prison in which he says that in times of desperation, prayer was his sole consolation. He also mentions in this book how he celebrated Mass in secret and how his relatives sent him so called "medicines," which was in fact the wine, and how he saved prison bread for the host. It is a very moving journal, a very moving book. There is also one very moving element in this book: Many of his prison guards slowly became very friendly toward him and many converted because of his witness.

Q: What impression did he make on you when you met him?

Father Cervellera: He was very calm. I met him in Rome. If I remember correctly, the Vatican obtained his release with the stipulation by the Vietnamese government that he would never go back to Vietnam. I met him when he was the secretary of [the Pontifical Council for] Justice and Peace. He was, how can I say, very quiet but very deep in his insight and was always very committed to Vietnam. He would meet refugees here in Italy or people would come from all over the world to visit him. He was always working and always supporting the Church in Vietnam with, what I would say, was a very placid calmness as if to say: "We know that Christ will always be victorious. There is no hurry and no anguish."

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net:

Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org

Where God Weeps: www.wheregodweeps.org/countries/vietnam

Short Film Where God Weeps-Vietnam: www.wheregodweeps.org/video-audio/short-films/vietnam-give-the-church-a-home-short-film