Vietnamese Catholic Leaders Show Some Backbone

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Vietnam’s state-sanctioned Catholic chiefs, not known for their political courage, have bluntly told the country’s president that remarks he made on US television over the trial of an anti-communist priest “do not correspond with the truth.”

“The newspapers here reported the CNN interview with President Nguyen Minh Triet, was tainted with distortions relating to the Episcopal Conference,” Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man charged in a stunning statement. Then, he said, “It showed that there is no absolute truth in this society today, only one-sided truth, virtual truth, while the real truth needs time before it can gradually emerge fully.”

Now everybody is waiting to see what will happen, particularly because when President Nguyen Minh Triuet was in the US on the first visit by a Vietnamese chief executive since the end of the Vietnam War 32 years ago, he told a meeting of overseas Vietnamese in New York that “political dissent is normal: even within our party, there are different viewpoints,” a statement seized upon by some as an indication that pluralism is no longer taboo in Vietnam.

The rare rebuke by the country’s priests comes at a time when Vietnam and the Vatican, which do not have diplomatic ties, have been working to improve relations. Early this year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung became the first leader of the communist country to meet the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI. The Holy See stressed that the last few years saw “new spaces of religious freedom for the Catholic Church in Vietnam” and that the meeting marked a “new and important step” towards the normalization of bilateral ties.

The controversy started when the Communist Party’s official paper, Nhan Dan, published a Vietnamese translation of President Nguyen Minh Triet’s interview with CNN’s Late Edition program. The interview had originally been aired on June 24, as Triet wrapped up his week-long trip to Washington – the first by a Vietnamese head of state since the end of the Vietnam War.

At the time, the Vietnamese media hardly touched the CNN story. Therefore many were amazed that the party’s official paper now provided Vietnamese readers with a seemingly full transcript, including the parts where Triet answered a question about Father Ly, who was sentenced most recently for his role as a founder of the democracy group Block 8406.

Father Ly’s case took an unexpected twist when a picture of the priest being muzzled by an officer in court surfaced on the internet. The photo prompted a barrage of international condemnation and was regarded by many as a symbol of political oppression. When President George W. Bush delivered his “freedom” speech in Prague in June, he mentioned Father Ly as one of the dissidents he wanted to be released.

Triet told Blitzer in the CNN interview that Ly had “uttered dirty words” at his trial, and said it “was not the policy of the Vietnamese government” to physically gag defendants. In the interview, Triet didn’t deviate from the party line. So what’s the controversy? It turned out that the Vietnamese translation included one quote not found in the CNN transcript, and this quote has provoked resentment from the country’s Catholic leaders.

According to the Vietnamese version, Triet told Blitzer that Father’s Ly trial “received approval from the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference and the Vatican.”

After Nhan Dan published the interview on July 4, the church erupted. The chairman of the country’s Episcopal Conference, Monseigneur Paul Nguyễn Van Hoa, sent a letter to President Triet, on behalf of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam, denying the claims and flatly saying that the president’s remarks “do not correspond to the truth.” The other religious leaders’ statements followed shortly after.

Father Ly has been controversial since well before he sent a provocative letter asking the US not to ratify the bilateral trade agreement in 2001. Some say while some of Father Ly’s past activities were directed specifically at the struggle for religious freedom, his recent activities were not strictly religious, but political. The chairman of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference, Mgr Paul Nguyen Van Hoa, had criticized Ly’s involvement in politics.

“A priest should work for everyone and not for one group against another,” Hoa said in an interview with the US-based VietCatholic News. However, the bishop also maintained that people should have the right to express their own opinions. When Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s undersecretary of state, visited Hanoi in March, a few weeks before Father Ly’s one-day trial, he reportedly asked Vietnam to ensure that Father Ly was given a fair trial.

Therefore the one-day March 30 tribunal became high-profile, as for the first time, diplomats and foreign journalists were allowed to attend the trial of a dissident. Hanoi apparently wanted to show they were delivering on pledges of openness. Instead, the show trial just proved how prevalent the lack of rule of law still is in Vietnam.

It is the way the trial of was conducted of Father Nguyen Van Ly, who has spent 15 years in prison for speaking out and now has been sentenced to eight more, rather than the trial itself, that has become disturbing for those in church circles. Ly and four other co-defendants were not given lawyers and were not allowed to present a defense. And the photo of the dissident priest being held down and gagged in the courtroom has attracted increasingly hostile international attention.

It’s yet unclear how Triet’s quote came to be published in the Communist Party’s official newspaper. The state media have reported that when Triet met some of Capitol Hill’s most influential legislators, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Washington D.C on June 21, Vietnam’s President also insisted that the Vatican had agreed to Father Ly’s trial. According to the Ho Chi Minh City-based Tuoi Tre newspaper, Triet said:

“You may suspect our Bishop Council dared not to speak up, but in this case, it was the Vatican that supported the Vietnamese government. They have full information proving that Ly had violated Vietnamese laws. If we had acted improperly, the Vatican would have had protested most strongly about this issue.”

Triet’s statement was obviously meant to give credibility and legitimacy to the trial. However, the President may have put himself in hot water. For many, the courtroom photo of Father Ly has become the pinnacle symbol of Vietnam’s political oppression. Now, with his statement being denied by the country’s Catholic leaders, Triet’s, and the party’s, subsequent rhetoric may ring hollow for many more.