WASHINGTON (April 29, 2004) -- Despite reported improvements in religious freedom in Vietnam, the "violent repression" of some Vietnamese Christians and the detention of a Catholic priest are sources of "grave concern," according to the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' International Policy Committee.
In a letter sent yesterday to Nguyen Tam Chien, Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, of Pensacola-Tallahassee, said he was pleased to hear that the situation of the Catholic Church in Vietnam had improved in recent years and urged the establishment of an official relationship between that country and the Holy See.
However, he called the treatment of the Montagnard or Dega people, and particularly "the violent repression of their Easter observances this month … especially reprehensible."
Bishop Ricard also requested a full commutation of the prison sentence imposed on Father Nguyen Van Ly, "whose only known offense was to submit testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom critical of Vietnam's behavior in this area."
Bishop Ricard asked that the ambassador forward the U.S. bishops' concerns to the Vietnamese government.
The full text of his letter follows:
"Dear Mr. Ambassador,
"Five years ago, together with other American bishops, I had the pleasure of visiting Vietnam and meeting with our brother bishops and fellow Catholics of Vietnam. Also in meetings with government officials in Hanoi and Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, we had frank and respectful discussions about the situation of religious life in your country.
"We were pleased to hear from our brother bishops of the improvements in the area of religious freedom in recent years, especially as concerns the Catholic Church. While full religious freedom for all believers seems still a future hope, we believe that the annual visits of the delegation of the Holy See have played a helpful role in these improved relations. We continue to hope that your Government will see the wisdom soon of establishing the long-desired official relationship with the Holy See.
"Recent and widely reported events affecting the Montagnard or Dega people in the Central Highlands, however, are a matter of grave concern to us who wish only good for the Vietnamese people. These largely Protestant Christians have been treated brutally by the authorities for years, with the violent repression of their Easter observances this month being especially reprehensible. I ask you to convey to your Government these concerns of the Catholic Church in the United States.
"Another painful issue is the continued detention of a priest whose only known offense was to submit testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom critical of Vietnam's behavior in this area. By imprisoning Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, an otherwise obscure human rights advocate, your Government has converted him into one of the world's better known prisoners of conscience and given greater reason for criticism of Vietnam's record on human rights and religious freedom.
"I urge your Government to commute, not merely further reduce, Father Ly's sentence. May I ask you also to convey this additional concern of the Catholic Church here to your Government."