On February third of this year, President Clinton ended the United States trade embargo against Vietnam, marking another milestone in the long and painful journey from the devastation of war toward greater contact and mutual understanding. As we welcome this change of policy on the part of our government, we wish also to note the areas of our special concern with regard to Vietnam, particularly the matter of religious freedom in that country and the still unsettled fate of thousands of refugees.
In our 1989 pastoral statement on relations between the United States and Vietnam, A Time for Dialogue and Healing, we affirmed the solidarity between the Church of Vietnam and that of the U.S., emphasized our concern for religious liberty, and said "it is time to move beyond the legacy of war, to begin to respond to the pressing needs of those affected by that war, and to address better both the problems and possibilities of a new relationship between the American and Vietnamese peoples". We renewed the appeal made on December 2, 1975 by the leadership of our Conference and other religious bodies that the trade embargo be lifted as soon as possible. Now, after nineteen years, a more equitable relationship may be possible, but serious challenges remain.
The issues that have governed relations between our two countries over these years have centered largely on the geopolitical role played by Vietnam, chiefly with regard to Cambodia, and the abiding concern of the American people for full accountability of our POWs and MIAs. The Cold War concerns have faded and most agree that Vietnam has been generally forthcoming on the POW/MIA issue, with prospects for still greater cooperation enhanced now by ending the sanctions.
Less attention has been given to the question of the religious rights of the Vietnamese people and specifically to the ability of the Catholic Church to function freely. As in several other countries in our time, the Vietnam Communist Party's control over and hostility to religious belief and practice was exceedingly harsh in the years immediately following the war. By all accounts, the present situation, while less than satisfactory, may represent some improvement over the previous period.
At the end of 1990, a Vatican delegation, headed by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, representing both the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Cor Unum, paid an official visit to Vietnam. In that same year, some 21 of the Vietnamese bishops (most but not all of their Conference) were permitted for the first time to make their ad limina visit to the Holy Father. "A dialogue has begun", the Pope said to the bishops in Rome, "which augurs well for the future".
Talks between the Holy See and the government continued with a delegation led by Msgr. Claudio Celli of the Secretariat of State in early 1992 and again just this year, and a visit by Vietnam officials to the Vatican in 1992. Both that year and the following, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of Vietnam presented the Prime Minister with petitions forthrightly describing the still-existing problems experienced by the church and urging their correction.
The Holy See has, just this year, named both the new Archbishop of Hanoi and appointed several other bishops. However, there still remains an unacceptable degree of government interference in the requirement that all nominations be approved. As Msgr. Celli said, in reluctantly accepting this requirement, "The Holy See continues to repeat its desire freely to nominate bishops; moreover, international documents on religious liberty affirm that every religion has a right to freely designate its own ministers."
Several of the arrested clergy have been released, most notably Fr. Dominic Tran Dinh Thu, founder of the Congregation of Mother Co-Redemptrix, and four other members of that congregation, all freed last year. Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity and our own Catholic Foreign Mission Society, Maryknoll, have begun to work in Vietnam and, as of this year, five of the country's seminaries have, with a variety of limitations, now been able to reopen.
Yet serious restrictions on religious practice remain. Our concerns about religious liberty begin with our own family of faith, but they do not end there. Recent crackdowns on religious groups have tended to be directed most directly at members of the Unified Buddhist Church, and against the evangelical house church movement, and are just as objectionable as the restrictions imposed on the Catholic Church. Government efforts to interfere with the internal life of religious bodies are unacceptable. As regards the Catholic Church, it is not the function of the state to approve or withhold approval for candidates to the priesthood, nor to restrict a bishop's freedom to name his pastors or transfer priests, nor should clergy be restricted from travelling freely within their diocese in carrying out their ministry. It is up to the Church to run its own affairs, to name bishops, to ordain priests without government interference.
These are among the items presented in October 1993 by the bishops of Vietnam in their petition to the government. They also ask that all the priests and religious released from the government's educational camps be allowed to resume their pastoral duties, that Catholics be free to contribute to the education of the young by establishing schools, that the Church be free to maintain its own publications. And although some seminaries have reopened, there are still more candidates than spaces.
Together with the bishops of Vietnam, we too hope that others of the closed seminaries will soon be opened and that the confiscated properties of the church and religious orders will be returned. As the bishops said, in concluding their list of petitions to the government, "These are only the basic conditions that are indispensable to the normal functioning of a religion, that will allow the Catholic Church to serve the country and the people effectively".
There are other issues relating to Vietnam that are of great concern to us, perhaps none more so than the plight of the nearly 55,000 refugees still in camps in Southeast Asia who have been denied refugee status and may be forced to return. We are concerned as well with the unresolved problems affecting Amerasian children, the contining effects (in both countries) of Agent Orange, and other legacies of that destructive period.
We pray that, with the growing dialogue of recent years and with the lifting now of economic sanctions, greater tolerance and understanding will come to characterize relations between our two countries. We hope in particular that the Vietnamese authorities will develop a more respectful and tolerant approach toward the religious institutions of their country. Religious liberty must remain an essential criterion for improving relations between the United States and Vietnam. As advocates of improved relations between our two peoples, we remain committed to defending the rights and dignity of all believers in Vietnam.
Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, Chairman
Committee on International Policy
United States Catholic Conference