Testimony of Rev. John Tran Cong Nghi
on International Religious Freedom
February 13, 2001

Prepared for Internet by Vietnamese Missionaries in Taiwan

Testimony of Rev. John Tran Cong Nghi
On February 13, 2001.

 Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

 It is indeed a great honor for me to be here today to present my testimony about the religious situation under the present communist government of Vietnam.

 From this Dicksern Building, a symbol of freedom, democracy, equality and brotherhood, I would like to congratulate all of you for your continuing efforts in defending fundamental human rights and human dignity of every human being all over the world. This is indeed a noble task.

 Living in a land of freedom and democracy, I appreciate of being here, in the United States of America, and I wish that, in the near future, all Vietnamese people will also have an opportunity to enjoy the liberty, peace, prosperity and happiness that you are enjoying. I strongly believe that every human being is entitled to the same rights as you and I have, and that Vietnamese people without the distinction of creed, ethnicity, region, and political affiliation, should be allowed to enjoy real freedom and should be treated as free people.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, in general, I can say that to some extents, religious situation in Vietnam has improved considerably in comparision with 10 or 30 years ago. Nowadays, people can go to the church to attend religious services. They can meet their pastors and carry out some other ministerial activities among themselves.

 But this is not the whole picture. That picture of seemingly freedom of religious practice is just on the surface! In reality, there is no freedom of religion at all, because the freedom of religion is controlled by the governmental authorities at all levels!

 Religious freedom, understood as a fundamental human right, has been and is still seriously violated by the Communist regime in Vietnam against all believers, the Vietnamese Catholics, in particular.

 In the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, which was promulgated on September 2, 1945, there was a sentence fashioned from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776 which said: "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.". But in reality, the Vietnamese government has made numerous restrictions, deterrents, and prohibitions jeopardizing this very freedom of religion.

 Since 1945, our Vietnamese people have not experienced freedom nor enjoyed happiness under the Communist regimes.

Catholics may not practice their faith freely:

Last summer, I visited Vietnam and had the opportunity to witness by myself many cases which could be considered serious violations against religious worship. I visited many churches and observed that local communists were constantly disturbing religious worship ceremonies by installing a tower with radio equipment next to many churches. They broadcasted propaganda and news programs using extremely high volume loudspeakers aimed at the religious facilities to disturb or drown out religious sermons and other religious activities.

 Religious organizations such as the Legion of Mary, the Holy Eucharist Youth Movement and other apostolate organizations are forbidden to operate. The government at the national and local levels demands that all religious activities must have prior permits by the government in order to be legal.

 A typical example: Ms Tran thi Hieu, a 24 years old girl, living in H.T. (North Vietnam), came to Ho chi Minh City last year to be trained to be a tailor. In the evening, she studied a short course of catechetics. On returning home in the North, she began to teach religious education to the children in her parish. The local authority suspected that she got her catechetic training in the South. They give her a summon order for "a working session". For a whole month, every single day she must walk 3 kilometers to the local police station to write down everything that she did during the time she stayed in Ho chi Minh city.

 The oppressive and anti-religion policies have been carried out ruthlessly and persistently by the Vietnamese communist government for almost 50 years (1954-2001). Many clergy and faithful have been suffered for years in the concentration camps just because they live out their faith: teaching other people of the Catholic faith, rehearsing hymns, joining religious orders, etc... The Vietnamese communist government still imprisons and detains some priests and catechists lay leaders.

The rights of the Church authority are violated and taken away:

As for the Vietnamese Catholic Church, the Vietnamese communist government has taken control of the most fundamental rights of the Church. This fact has been repeatedly listed in the petitions of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Vietnam from 1980 to this very year 2001. No Catholic bishop will be appointed without the prior approval by the Communist government of Vietnam. The Communist authority has still refused to allow the Vatican to appoint new bishops to replace those who are too old and those who died. As a result, Vietnam still has no replacement for the Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung of Hanoi, who is over the age required to be retired. At the present time, these dioceses of Hung Hoa, Hai Phong, Bac Ninh, Bui Chu, and others are still without bishops after over 8 years. The Holy See is still unsuccessful in appointing bishops for these dioceses.

 The pastoral authority of existing Catholic bishops has been taken away by Communist. Any bishop who wishes to ordain priests or to assign priests to certain tasks must first write application forms and discuss the matters with the government for a long time. In some cases, it has taken almost 20 years without a solution.

 The Catholic Church is not free to select the candidates for the priesthood. The selection of priestly candidates, the formation and training programs of seminarians must be approved by the local government. The standards set by the Vietnamese communist government for each candidate have nothing to do with the qualities that the Church requires in candidates to carry out their duties as a priest. All candidates had to go through a thorough investigation, and only those whom the Communist authorities are pleased with will be accepted. The State also demands that in every Seminary shall has a teacher sent by the State to teach the subject of "sociology." Usually that teacher is a secret investigator and/or a spy, and the "sociology" course is little more than Marxist indoctrination.

 Due to this process, the number of new priests being ordained every year has fallen sharply. As a result, there are not enough priests to meet the needs of the Church or even to fill positions left by attrition. In remote areas, many priests have to take care of as many as 5 or even 10 parishes far apart. Government permission is also required for a priest to say mass outside his officially permitted parish. In addition, it is very difficult for a priest to obtain permission to transfer from one parish to another.

 In August 2000, I visited and talked with a dozen of priests in Vietnam. All of them told me that their pastoral works were very limited: celebrating Masses, teaching catechism for children with a limited time permitted by the local government, visiting the sick, witnessing weddings, and burying the dead. Even to carry out those basic activities, they must have written permission; otherwise the priest will be put into prison. I know five priests serving prison sentences ranging from five to ten years just because they carried out pastoral activities without permission of the local government or just because they were ordained without a governmental approval.

 With these measures of attrition, during the last 25 years, the number of the priests and religious lay leadership has been decreased to an alarming level: the total number of the priests in the north is about 300 and many of them are too old. For example: with the total of 300,000 faithfuls in Hanoi Archdiocese, there are only 25 priests. The Diocese of Hai phong, with 150,000 faithfuls, has only 16 priests remaining, 7 of those are over 60 years old. The Bac Ninh Diocese, with a congregation of 100,000 faithfuls living in 46 parishes, has only 5 priests. The Phat Diem Diocese, with 125,000 Catholics, was served only by 30 priests. The Bui Chu Diocese, with 300,000 believers, has only about 50 priests. The communist authorities expect that within 25 to 30 years, when the older priests die, the Catholic community will become leaderless, and the Church will disintegrate by itself.

 The Catholic Church is not allowed to publish any periodicals or church bulletin at any level -- from national to parish -- and therefore, deprived of freedom of expression, and cannot carry out her religious teaching responsibility. Two years ago, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Vietnam began to publish a trimester "Ban Tin Hiep Thong" (The Communion Newsletter). The first six issues were printed "illegally" . Issues numbered 7, 8, and 9 from February 2000 to September 2000 were printed under a temporary permit. But, in October 2000 the Vietnamese communist government banned the Newsletter completely.

 In brief, the Vietnamese Communists have employed many measures, both overt and subtle, to minimize the effectiveness of the Church?s activities and to wear out gradually religious leaders and the clergy. However, they have been unable to eliminate completely the church?s activities, because Vietnamese people continue to be a strong, faith-oriented people.

Facilities and Properties of the Church have been confiscated:

Through the land reform campaign in 1957 and after the Communists took over the South Vietnam in 1975, they confiscated churches, properties and educational institutions of the Church. Many Catholic churches and schools were converted into meeting halls, offices, shops, theaters, or storage facilities. The communists also confiscated other important facilities belonging to the Catholic Church, such as the diocesan seminaries, the Catholic University, all high schools, hospitals, and other charitable facilities such as orphanages, leprosaria, child care centers.

 In 1976, the Dalat University was confiscated by the government and turned into a training facility for communist cadres. All other Catholic seminaries were confiscated in 1975. Some were partly returned to the local Church, but many were not. For example, the government took away Hoan Thien Seminary, at 11 Dong Da street in Hue City, in December 1979 by force, expelling 3 priest professors and 80 students from the seminary.

 As recently as April 27, 2000 local authorities of Huong Thuy, Thua Thien province, came to Thien An Monastery to announce to the Catholic monks living there that the government were going to confiscated 104 acres of land of this religious community based on the Decree No 1230/QD which was signed on November 22, 1999 by the Prime Minister Phan van Khai himself. This land then be transferred to the Hue Travel Company so that it would be developed to be an entertainment park and amusement center. The decree did not explain why the government took away the legally owned property of Thien An monastery, which has been here for over 80 years. The superior of the monastery made an appeal on May 22, 2000 and again on September 12, 2000 asking the government to return the land and properties to the catholic monks of the Monastery but their request has been ignored.

The demands of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Vietnam:

In October,1992, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Vietnam sent the Communist government an open letter, demanding them to carry out basic rights of religious freedom for the Church. Since then, every year the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Vietnam repeat their requests as the followings:

 To lift all bans, restrictions and arbitrary control of religious activities, including worship, ceremonies and rituals, religious activities and organizations, transfers and movements of priests. This appeal to cease all attempts to intervene in the internal affairs of religions included all religions, not just Catholics.

 To repeal any ban, restriction and control in the recruitment, training and ordination of candidates for priesthood.

 To return to the Church all properties, facilities and institutions confiscated, expropriated or forced into unfair concession by the state.

 To lift restrictions and bans imposed on the Church?s humanitarian social, cultural. charitable and educational activities.

 Facing the Vietnamese communist government?s vicious policy to suffocate all religions in Vietnam, various churches have consistently protested and demanded religious freedom in a peaceful, non-violent, and persistent manner until true freedom is achieved. As recently as five days ago, religious leaders of Buddhist Unification Church, Catholic Church, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai have issued a joint declaration demanding basic religious freedom rights.

What can the United States and the Free World can do to help Vietnamese people?

The United States of America and the international communities should use their resources and influences to force the Vietnamese Communist authorities to live up to their declarations of the right for religious freedom of the Vietnamese people and accordingly to fulfill legitimate demands on religious freedom made by the religious leaders and the faithful of all religions in Vietnam.

 Actually, the Communist government of Vietnam has signed many treaties on human rights, but never intended to comply with any of them. Its signatures merely served to deceive the international community. For example, the Vietnamese government signed the International Agreements Civil and Political Rights on September 24, 1982 but it has never conformed to Article 18 and 19 of the Covenant regarding freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.

 If the United States of America and other nations are truly concerned about human rights, and in particular about religious freedom in Vietnam, then please do not help the Vietnamese communists prolong their autocratic and totalitarian regime.

 Vietnamese people will never experience true freedom of religion as long as the communist regime remains in place. Therefore, I sincerely request the international community to apply pressures on the government of Vietnam to force them let their people free. Vietnamese people should be free to choose their own leaders, the form of government. They should be allowed to practice religions of their choice, and their own destiny.

 Last summer I visited my country, and I saw the slogan "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." everywhere. Ironically, maybe because they are so precious and rare that nobody really can have them nor enjoy them.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I deeply appreciate this opportunity to represent my compatriots and my Church in Vietnam to present the religious situation in my home country. I want to say that all Vietnamese people are deeply religious people. They need religious freedom to live on and to carry out their mission.

 I sincerely thank you for your attention.

 May God bless you, your families, your noble works, and this beautiful and great nation of the United States of America.

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