Vietnam News

Vatican eyes closer ties with communist Vietnam

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Closer relations between the Vatican and Vietnam have raised eyebrows over why the Catholic Church is making friends with a state where religious organizations are tightly under the thumb of the communist authorities.

Earlier this month, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states and international organizations, wrapped up a six-day working trip to Vietnam in anticipation of a rumored visit by Pope Francis later in the year.

Gallagher, the papacy’s top diplomat, met with Vietnam’s prime minister and foreign minister and expressed the Vatican’s “gratitude” for the progress made to improve the relationship between the two states, including Hanoi’s decision last year to allow the Vatican to send its first resident papal representative to Vietnam in decades.

A joint working group was established in 2009 to repair relations that were severed in 1975 after the Vietnamese Communist Party, which is nominally atheist, established its rule over the entire country following the end of the Vietnam War.

Dialogue culminated last July in a visit to the Holy See by Vietnam’s now former president, Vo Van Thuong, who also met with Pope Francis. In December, the Vatican appointed its first permanent representative to Vietnam in decades.

Hanoi has also invited Pope Francis to visit Vietnam, which was believed to have been discussed during Gallagher’s visit this month and when the pope met a visiting delegation from Vietnam’s Communist Party in January.

But Thuong’s resignation as president last month amid a nationwide anti-corruption campaign may have complicated negotiations over the pope’s visit, although it is still expected to take place later this year.

Concerns over religious rights

While Catholics account for just 6% of Vietnam’s population, they represent around half of all Vietnamese who identify as being religious, according to a 2019 census.

But Vietnam has been accused of flagrantly violating the rights of religious organizations and groups, especially congregations of the country’s ethnic minorities, who are adherents of various Buddhist sects, Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as a number of religions deemed illegal by the communist government.

In December 2022, the United States put Vietnam on a special watch list on religious freedom for “having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.” Months later, the communist authorities released a white book on religious policies that purported to outline a “comprehensive” policy for guaranteeing religious freedom.

In early 2018, Vietnam passed a law requiring religious communities to register their organizations and places of worship with the government before they are allowed to engage in religious activity.

However, a report by the US State Department in 2022 noted that the authorities had not recognized any new religious organizations, including chapters of larger, previously approved groups, in the previous four years.

Cracking down on foreign influence

Earlier this year, a rights campaign group leaked Directive 24, a “national security” document produced by the Communist Party’s Politburo that analysts have said shows the authorities’ desire to increase repression of institutions and ideas that could be influenced by foreign governments.

It focused on religious and ethnic identities, including advice to the authorities to “prevent the establishment of labor organizations on the basis of ethnicity and religion.”

A Vietnamese religious rights activist, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said rapprochement with the Vatican may lead to the Vietnamese state exerting less control over the affairs of Catholics inside the country.

But the activist added that even if there are improved rights for Catholics, this is unlikely to trickle down to other repressed religious groups, such as Theravada Buddhists of the Khmer Krom, a minority group in the south, or Dega Protestants in Vietnam’s central highlands.

Another prominent rights activist argued that Vietnam is being cynically used by the Vatican so that the Catholic Church can be friendly with communist states, namely China, with which the Vatican is also engaged in rapprochement talks.

Last December, Pope Francis said more work needs to be done to disprove claims that “the church doesn’t accept [Chinese] culture or values, or that the church depends on another foreign power.”

Religion on the wayside of EU focus

Vatican-Vietnam relations also raise questions about how seriously Europe takes religious rights in authoritarian states like Vietnam.

“The sad fact is the European Union and most of its member states have been asleep at the switch when it comes to standing up for religious freedom in Vietnam,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“The EU should be making common cause with the US and other like-minded countries to demand the Vietnamese government lift its restrictive administrative controls over religion, and let religious leaders and their followers practice without constant interference,” he added.

For instance, the EU does not have a “Special Watch List” or a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” as the United States does under its International Religious Freedom Act, which obliges Washington to do annual assessments.

EU statements have often mentioned religious rights, and the German parliament released a report on religious freedom in Vietnam in 2021. But, for the most part, European governments have instead focused on political and labor rights in Vietnam, analysts said.

Indeed, the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement, ratified in 2020, focused primarily on labor rights, although activists and campaigners have said Hanoi has also failed to stick to its promises to allow independent trade unions. 

“The ratification of the agreement was actually opposed at the time by many voices in the European Parliament precisely because of human rights violations,” said Udo Bullmann, an EU lawmaker and chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights who visited Vietnam in April last year.

“We now very much hope that, in parallel to the growing partnership in economic and political terms, EU stakeholders’ continuous insistence will result in significant improvements in human rights compliance in Vietnam,” he added.

However, Bullmann reckons the EU should support human rights in Vietnam “independently from initiatives of other international actors.”

An EU spokesperson said Brussels is “concerned about the reports on violations of freedom of religion and belief in Vietnam,” and freedom of religion and belief was discussed at the EU’s last Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam in Hanoi last June.

“We will urge the Vietnamese authorities again in the upcoming 2024 Human Rights Dialogue to stop any harassment and arbitrary detention of individuals belonging to religious minorities,” the spokesperson added.

By David Hutt – Deutsche Welle – April 25, 2024

Translate / Dịch

En poursuivant la visite de ce site, vous acceptez l’utilisation de traceurs (cookies) vous permettant juste d'optimiser techniquement votre navigation. Plus d’informations

En poursuivant la visite de ce site, vous acceptez l’utilisation de traceurs (cookies) vous permettant d'optimiser techniquement votre navigation. Aucune information sur votre utilisation de ce site ne sera partagée auprès de quelconques médias sociaux, de sociétés commerciales ou d'agences de publicité et d'analyse. Cliquer sur le bouton "Accepter", équivaut à votre consentement.