Monday, March 30, 2009

Seminars address Catholic concerns

The declining proportion of Catholics to Vietnam’s overall population was addressed in a series of seminars organized by the Saigon archdiocese in March. Official statistics report 6,087,000 Catholics in 2007 out of a total population of 85,154,900; or about 7.15% of the national population. This is a decline from 7.5% of the population in 1939. In contrast, protestant Christians have surged from 400,000 in 1999 to 1.5 million in 2008, according to official figures.

Another concern is keeping Catholic converts in the fold. Conversions to Catholicism in Vietnam have averaged 35,000 annually over the last seven years, about 90% due to marriages, but the number of converts who remain active Catholics has declined dramatically. This is in part because of complications accompanying conversions, such as losing privileges and promotions at certain jobs, along with other forms of subtle discrimination directed from the government.

The seminars complained of an indifferent attitude among Vietnamese Catholics toward bearing witness to their faith. Part of the problem is that clergy have not assumed enough responsibility for directing missionary work, and hence “Missionary efforts seem to be a personal, sporadic crusade for volunteering individuals and religious orders,” said Fr. Anthony Nguyen. Dioceses lack zeal and have not designed a comprehensive missionary strategy. Another factor, of course, is government policy, which ranges from overt hostility in the Central Highlands and northern mountainous regions where pastoral activities are often hindered; to a more subtle policy of propagandizing against the church in the educational system to the point where Catholic youth want to hide their faith.

Source: VietCatholic News March 6, 9.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sentence against Thai Ha faithful upheld

Vietnam's appeals court upheld on Friday (March 27) a lower court verdict against eight defendants who had been found guilty of "destroying property" and "disturbing public order" for their participation, along with thousands of other Catholics, in protests over land once held by the Thai Ha parish in Hanoi. At the original trial, seven were given suspended sentences ranging from 12 to 17 months, and the eighth was issued a warning. On the day of the appeals hearing, some 5,000 Catholics are reported to have marched nearly eight miles, to within 200 yards of the courthouse, where they were cordoned off by the police.

The hearing was preceded by a government orchestrated campaign against the defendants, and perhaps even more so against the lawyer they chose to represent them, Le Tran Luat. Luat was the object of harsh denunciations in the state press in recents months, and was also prevented by police from travelling to Hanoi to represent his clients. The campaign culminated with his licence to practice law being revoked. His case seems similar to two other lawyers who defend dissidents -- Le Thi Cong Nhan and Nguyen Van Dai, who were sentenced to four and five years respectively in a trial held in May 2007. The defendants were represented by Hoang Cao Sang and Huynh Van Dong at the appeals hearing, according to Vietnam News.

If the defendants choose to appeal again, the only court left would be Vietnam's Supreme Court.

Sources: Associated Press March 27; AsiaNews.It, March 26; BBC News March 27; VietCatholic News March 27; Vietnam News Service March 28.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

UN Human Rights council reviews Vietnam

Vietnam's human rights record is to be reviewed along with several other countries at the fifth session of the United Nations Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council, to be held in Geneva from May 4-15. Under UN rules, all 192 UN member states are to be reviewed in four year cycles, with sixteen countries reviewed in each of the three sessions held annually.

In preparation for this session, twelve international NGOs submitted reports criticizing Vietnam's human rights performance on a wide variety of fronts. The submissions came from Amnesty International (AI) based in London; the Association Tourner la PAGE (ATLP), based in Maurepas, France; Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), based in Surrey, U.K.; the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) based in Strasbourg, France; the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Viet Nam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) based in Paris, with two background documents; the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children (GIEACPC); Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in New York city; INDIG, based in Hawaii; International PEN, based in London, with three background documents; Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) based in Washington D.C.; the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) based in New Jersey; and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) based in The Hague, the Netherlands.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights posted a summary of the main points raised by each organization. It also posted the submissions of each of the organizations, which can be found at its website, or clicking on the highlighted acronyms in the above paragraph, with the exception of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ). In addition the office posted the official response from Vietnam defending its policies related to human rights and emphasizing the need for national independence and political stability, which has been used to justify the repression of dissidents and pro-democracy movements, along with other forms of repression. Vietnam did acknowledge, however, "inconsistencies" and "difficulties" in its legal system, and economic inequality and other social problems growing out of rapid economic development.

The principal criticism of Vietnam contained in the sumissions was the continued lack of a rule of law society, with vaguely worded legislation enabling harsh repression against dissidents and restrictions on religious groups; and no genuine right of due process for defendants in political trials. These contradict proclamations found in Vietnam's constitution and other legislative documents, which promise freedom of expression and religion along with other rights.

Other areas of criticism included discrimination against women and ethnic minorities; the use of the death penalty; harsh conditions in prison camps and other detention centers; and widespread corporal punishment of children.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bauxite mining plans raise concerns

Concerns have been expressed by scientists and others in Vietnam, even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, over government plans to embark on major bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands and mountainous northern regions. Such mining could cause serious ecological damage and destroy the way of life for the people living in these regions, predominantly ethnic minorities.

Vietnam ie estimated to have up to eight billion tonnes of bauxite ore, the third largest supply in the world. It has signed agreements with Alcoa, and Australian and Chinese companies to mine these reserves. The government plans investments of US$15 billion by 2025 to exploit these reserves. The state-run Coal and Minerals Industrial Group (Vinacomin) has begun building an aluminum processing factory and is preparing for major mining operations in Dac Nong and Lam Dong provinces of the Central Highlands, where most of the bauxite reserves are located. Vinacomin plans for annual aluminum production of 4.8 to 6.6 million tons by 2015.

The environmental problems come in the process of mining, which will generate mountains of toxic sludge and also destroy much of the soil since it involves strip mining. Bauxite is the material used to produce alumina which is in turn the raw material for aluminum. But in the conversion process to alumina, about three tons of red sludge is generated for every ton of alumina. The sludge contains about 70% water and 30% ore, which according to Nguyen Thanh Son, director of the Red River Energy Co., a Vinacomin subsidiary, is "very dangerous to the environment because 70% of that is NaOH,"or sodium hydroxide.

If not managed properly, the sludge can pollute the waters and vegetation. A serious obstacle to management is the problem of disposal. In Australia, the sludge from alumina production is transferred to dry areas of the outback. But in Vietnam, there is no such option, most of the country under heavy tropical weather, meaning the sludge is more likely to run into the water table and vegetation, threatening the cash crops currently grown in the region, such as coffee; as well as the forests and also possibly polluting the water running into the heavily populated Mekong Delta.

Concerns have also been raised over the displacement of ethnic minorities in this region, who have already been affected by the large-scale agricultural projects and deforestation. Nguyen Ngoc, a writer and expert on the region, said: "Its culture could be called a forest culture, with a close attachment between humans and nature... If the land and forest base of the western highlands disappear, its culture will be broken, its society will be unstable, and these ethnic minorities will no longer exist."

Also in question is how the necessary support system can be developed to provide enough electricity and proper transporation for the bauxite mining and processing.

In an open letter written to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in January, General Vo Nguyen Giap urged the government stop bauxite mining, warning it would harm the environment and ethnic minorities in the highlands. He noted that in the early 1980s he oversaw a study on this question and was advised by Soviet experts not to proceed with such mining because of the risk of serious ecological damage.

Sources: Asia Times Online [Duy Hoang] March 16; Radio Free Asia March 17; Viet Tan Open Letter March 20; Agence France Presse Jan. 15 and Feb. 6; Vietnam Business Finance Dec. 17, 2008, Asia Sentinel (Anh Le Tran) March 24; see also Bloomberg/Mining Weekly Sept. 5, 2006; VietnamNet Bridge Sept. 10, 2006; AmCham Vietnam press release May 6, 2008. For text of Giap's letter see Jan. 14 and Dien Dan forum Jan. 10.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Southern and northern protestants hold congresses

The 33rd Assembly of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) met Feb. 24-25 at the the Hoanh Nhi evangelical church of Giao Thuy district in Nam Dinh province. It was attended by about 300 clergy and believers, according to Vietnam News Agency,nearly half of them ethnic minorities (an earlier VNA report predicted 1,000 in attendance). Among the events that took place at the meeting, according to VNA, was "an ordination ceremony for nine young pastors for the first time over almost three decades." This would appear to reflect on government policies restricting the ordination of clergy. A 13-member executive board was elected at the assembly along with a new president, Rev. Nguyen Huu Mac. The meeting also discussed revising the church's statutes and merging with the much larger General Confederation of Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), which in the past has resisted such a merge due to fear of increased government control.

According to VNA the northern church, which gained legal recognition in 1958, "currently has 14 chapters with 24,000 followers and overseeing the practice of worship by 126 registered groups of Hmong followers in the northern mountainous region."

The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) met in Ho Chi Minh City March 3-6 for its congress, attended by 1,041 pastors, functionaries and missionaries according to VNA. Its president Pastor Thai Phuoc Truong is reported by VNA to have said:

"since the churchs legal status was recognised by the Government in 2001, it has managed to grow into 1,343 cells region-wide, two-thirds of them based in the Central Highlands. The Religious Publishing House has helped us produce over 30,000 bilingual copies of the bible, in Vietnamese-Bana, Vietnamese-Giarai, and Vietnamese-Ede to meet the growing demand of ethnic minority followers, added Truong. Moreover, tens of thousands of other publications on religious theory and hymns have been published in seven different languages and distributed region-wide. The churchs charitable work has greatly contributed to improving the living conditions of poor people, especially in remote and poor communities. The church's Committee for Healthcare and Social Affairs reported that in the last four years, the church has distributed free medicines to over 7,000 patients, drilled more than 260 water wells and built over 420 houses for the poor. "

VNA also estimates that the southern protestant church has nearly one million followers, including 433 pastors, with the church most popular in the Central Highlands among ethnic minorities and in Binh Phuoc province, "where local administrators have allotted land for the construction of six new churches and granted licences to another 165 worship houses."

Sources: Vietnam News Agency, Feb. 20,24,26, March 3, 13; Voice of Vietnam Feb. 25.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Truong Quoc Huy petition circulated

Reporters without Borders is circulating a petition for Truong Quoc Huy, a cyberdissident imprisoned since August 18, 2006, accused of using the internet to try to "overthrow the government." His activities that led to his arrest included participating in a pro-democracy chat forum and giving interviews to some foreign radio stations in which he voiced support for the "Bloc 4806" dissident group. He was imprisoned for similar reasons from October 2005 to July 2006.

Source: Reporters without Borders petition.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ban on Danang publishing house to end today

A three month ban on the Danang publishing house (Nha xuat ban Da Nang) is scheduled to end today, March 15. It was imposed by Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communications because of "severe mistakes" made in publishing a book by Vu Ngoc Tien and Le Mai titled Rong Da (Stone Dragon). Under the order issued Dec. 12, the publishing ban was to last from Dec. 15 to March 15, and after this probation period the publishing house would have to apply to the ministry for authorization to resume publishing. In addition, according to the International Publisher Association, "the Ministry of Information and Communication would have also decided to 'discipline' all of the Da Nang staff deemed responsible for the publishing of Rong Da. The staff of this publishing house under licence since 1984 would also have been replaced by new staff."

The suspension was protested by Bjorn Smith-Simonsen, Chair of IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee, who noted that the 29th IPA congress held in Seoul in May 2008 passed a resolution urging Vietnamese authorities to allow freedom of publishing in their country.

Source: IPA press release, Feb. 20. See also letter of Vu Ngoc Tien to Danang publishing house, Nov. 17, 2008; BBC Vietnamese News Service Nov. 18.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Vietnam an "enemy of the internet"

Reporters without Borders issued a report March 12, Enemies of the Internet, in which it described efforts worldwide to suppress the free use of internet. It singled out Vietnam along with eleven other nations for their suppression: Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It said these countries "have all transformed their Internet into an Intranet in order to prevent their population from accessing ‘undesirable’ online information... All these countries distinguish themselves not only by their ability to censor online news and information but also by their virtually systematic persecution of troublesome Internet users.."

The report says overall 70 cyber-dissidents are imprisoned around the world, China having the most, followed by Vietnam. Vietnamese imprisoned for dissident activities over the internet include Nguyen Van Dai (aka Dieu Cay), Nguyen Dao, Le Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Bac Truyen, Le Thi Cong Nhan, and Tran Quoc Hien.

The report also noted increased efforts to control blogs through repressive legislation. For example:

Circular n°7, came into force on 20 January 2009, which is designed to control blogs and their content. It is now illegal for a blogger to post articles under another identity. Blogs can only carry strictly personal information (Article 1) and it is banned to “put out press articles, literary works or other publications banned by the press law” (Article 2). Moreover, every six months, at the request of the authorities, hosts must make a report on the activities of their customers including the number of blogs they run and their statistics as well as details of blogs that violate rules established by the host (Article 6). For Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, Do Quy Doan, “Bloggers are supervised to prevent them from entering into illegality or putting out false information: criticising the fatherland, the work of constructing the country,

Source: Reporters without Borders March 12; for full report in PDF format click here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thich Quang Do meets U.S. consulate official

Venerable Thich Quang Do, leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, received on Feb. 26 Ms. Katia Bennett, who is the political officer of the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. During the meeting he described government strategies to contain Buddhism and also expressed his unhappiness with a recent statement made by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton on the issue of human rights and U.S.-China relations. He discussed the meeting in a Feb. 28 interview with Y Lan (Penelope Faulkner) of Radio Free Asia.

The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) was once the largest Buddhist organization of south Vietnam, bringing together Buddhists of both major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana. Many of its leaders were also active in the movement for peace and human rights and developed ties with international peace organizations. After 1975 it came under systematic persecution, culminating in 1981 with its forced incorporation into a newly created state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC), which all Buddhist organizations were required to join. Thich Quang Do and Thich Huyen Quang were the two UBCV leaders who spoke out most strongly against this policy, and consequently spent most of the subsequent years in house arrest or internal exile. Thich Huyen Quang died last year, but Thich Quang Do remains active and is a contender for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Here are some of the main points he made in his meeting with Ms. Bennett, as told to Y Lan:

First, he expressed his "grave concern" over a statement made by Sec. of State Clinton in Beijing, when she said enroute to China that human rights concerns "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises;" and that it might be better for the U.S. and China to agree to disagree on the issue of human rights. Thich Quang Do said this statement was "like a bucket of cold water poured over my head;" that her statement carries "serious implications for all those braving imprisonment, torture, even death to free teir countries from the chains of dictatorship.."

Ms. Bennett replied that human rights would always remain a cornerstone of U.S. human rights policy, and gave him a copy of the annual U.S. human rights report, which included some strong criticism of Vietnam's practices. Thich Quang Do said whatever the U.S. position, he and others would continue to struggle, but "it is so hard to struggle under Vietnam's one-party state." He said support from the U.S. and Europe is essential to their cause.

On the UBCV situation in Vietnam, he told her that the government's strategy has shifted since 2000, from public trials and prison sentences to methods such as house arrest, or administrative detention by oral orders only, so the leading monks could be detained without any legal trace. He described his room at Thanh Minh Zen monastery in the city as like a prison cell, adding that he was followed by security officials whereever he went.

He said the government has made some major moves to undermine the UBCV in recent years: "Beginning in 2005, they used a number of monks from abroad, especially Thich Nhat Hanh, to launch a so-called 'reconciliation' plan..", which meant merging the UBCV with the state sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church. However, this plan was rejected by UBCV leaders because they felt such a merge would turn UBCV monks into lackeys of the state.

In 2006, the government proposed creation of a new church, the General Buddhist Church, which would embrace all others. This proposal was also rejected by UBCV leaders.

In 2007 the government tried two different strategies: "Firstly, they approached a number of UBCV monks and promised the government would legalize the UBCV if they applied to register. Naturally, we could not accept this because the UBCV already has a legal status. We have never been banned, therefore we have no need to register. Secondly, they promised a number of UBCV monks to legalize the UBCV on condition that Thich Huyen Quang and I were excluded from the leadership. These two strategies were also unsuccessful."

In 2008, he said, the Vietnam government "covertly created a movement called 'Back to one’s Roots', using a number of UBCV monks based abroad, particularly in Europe, Australia-New Zealand and Canada who set up a so-called 'Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam Overseas.' In fact, 'back to one’s roots' meant going back to Vietnam to take part in the UN Day of the Vesak, hosted by the government in Hanoi. Thich Nhat Hanh went, along with a large number of monks from abroad. The plan was to formally announce their break-away from the UBCV during the Vesak festival. Once the UBCV had been publicly rejected [by its own members], it would be easy to destroy its name and reputation, and wipe out the UBCV once and for all. Fortunately, UBCV Patriarch Thich Huyen Quang issued Edict No. 9 to stop this movement from developing. Thanks to this, the UBCV escaped this danger.."

Edict No. 9 issued by Thich Huyen Quang in Sept. 2007 was, according to Que Me, intended to counter Hanoi's efforts to infiltrate overseas UbCV leadership by "creating a new framework for the UBCV Overseas Office and appointing a new leadership team for its sections in the Europe, Canada, the USA and Australia."

Thich Quang Do said he expects continued government efforts to undermine and destroy the UBCV, within Vietnam and overseas. But "we will never submit, we will never become slaves of the Communist Party," he told Y Lan. "I made that quite clear to Ms. Bennett."

Source: Que Me press release March 11.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nong Duc Manh named "predator of press freedom"

Reporters without Borders has named Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nong Duc Manh an "predator of press freedom". This is a category the organization reserves for political leaders who suppress freedom of the press in a harsh or systematic manner. It described Manh as "one of the architects of the relentless crackdown on opposition groups and dissident publications in Vietnam. Two journalists and around 15 cyber-dissidents have been sentenced to long prison sentences since January 2007." It noted in particular the arrest and imprisonment of Fr. Nguyen Van Ly, who received an eight year prison sentence for editing a Catholic dissident publication, Tu Do Ngon Luan; and of dissidents with the pro-democracy "Bloc 8406" who had published two underground magazines, distributed clandestinely within Vietnam and abroad. It also said he "distrusts the Internet and had several people arrested in 2007 for demanding more democracy on online forums."

Source: Reporters Without Borders, Predators of Press Freedom.

Human rights research center in Vietnam

A human rights research center, funded by Denmark, was inaugurated March 6 at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law. It is the first of its kind in the city, the second in Vietnam. The stated purpose of the center is to further good government and administrative reform through human rights research:

"We plan to prioritise research on public rights related to the law on administration, citizen’s rights related to civil and criminal codes, as well as other international treaties and regulations on human rights,” said Dr. Do Minh Khoi, head of the field State Theory and Law of the Faculty of State Administration Law of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and director of the center.

The center is funded with 70 million Danish kroner (12.7 million USD) for the 2008-2011 period under an agreement signed by the two government on Dec. 27, 2007. Denmark is also funding a similar center at the Hanoi National University.

Sources: VietnamNet Bridge/CPV March 7; VietnamNet Bridge/VNA March 7.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tales of socialist re-education book online

To be made over: tales of socialist re-education in Vietnam, edited and translated by the late Huynh Sanh Thong, is now available online, in PDF format. This book is a collection of stories and memoirs by writers from the former South Vietnam, many of them well-known, focusing on the experience of daily life in these harsh camps. The camps were set up in 1975 to round up hundreds of thousands of former military officers, political officials, party leaders, religious leaders, writers, journalists and others who were presumed to represent a threat to the regime; most were released after a few years but some stayed as long as 15 years before their release. This book was published in 1988, by then it was clear that the camps failed the central stated purpose: to transform the inmates into "new socialist men".

This book is available online as part of the Yale University Council on Southeast Asia's Lac Viet series because it is no longer in print. For a listing of other books available click here. The most well known book from this series is Hoa Dia Nguc - Flowers from Hell, by Nguyen Chi Thien, edited and translated by Huynh Sanh Thong. This is a bilingual collection of searing poems written about the experience of imprisonment in political imprisonment and the re-education camps of northern Vietnam by Thien, who was imprisoned for most of the time between 1958-1978.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Vigils held for lawyer Le Tran Luat

Hanoi Redemptorists led a vigil attended by thousands on Saturday evening March 7 for lawyer Le Tran Luat of Ho Chi Minh Cithy. He has been representing the eight defendants of the Thai Ha parish in Hanoi, who were arrested and convicted for their protest of the government confiscation of church property. Similar vigils organized by Redemptorists were held in Ho Chi Minh city and other provinces.

As noted in the March 3 entry below, Luat has come under government pressure for representing these Catholic dissidents. The harassment includes the lawyers association threatening to suspend his license, denunciation in the official media; and police ransaking his office and interrogating him and his assistant (on separate occassions) for several hours.

Source: VietCatholic News March 8.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Book: Phat Giao & Cuoc Sang

Our library here at the University of California, Berkeley, received the following book which might be of interest (sorry for the lack of diacritics):

Phat Giao & Cuoc Song: Chan dung & doi thoai, edited by Nguyen Ba Hoan, published in Hanoi in 2007 by Nha Xuat Ban Lao Dong (Labor publishing house). 255 pages.

This is about Buddhism in Vietnam today, based on interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh, and the following monks based in Vietnam: Thich Vien Minh, Thich Nhat Quang, Thich Thien Phung, Thich Chan Tinh, thich Nhat Tu and Thich Thien Sang. Unfortunately, as this is from a government owned publisher (as are all legal publishers in Vietnam), the book does not allow for alternative views on this issue, such as from Thich Quang Do, leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Nevertheless, it would probably be useful for those researching Buddhism in Vietnam today.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Hanoi newspaper refuses to rectify error

Hanoi Moi, the daily newspaper of Hanoi, refused to rectify an assertion made about the eight defendants who were tried last December for their involvement in the Catholic Thai Ha parish dispute. Along with Hanoi's VTV1 Television, it claimed the defendants lowered their heads and acknowledged their guilt at the trial. Two of the defendants, Nguyen Thi Viet and Ngo Thi Dung, filed a lawsuit against the newspaper and television station. They demanded a correction and an apology, insisting they always maintained their innocence during the trial. An article published Feb. 28 in Hanoi Moi passed quickly over the issue of this factual error and went on to condemn the two for their support of this protest over the government's confiscation of Catholic property. According to Eglises d'Asie, the newspaper's stance on this issue seems to be directed by Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information.

Eglises d'Asie also noted that lawyer Le Tran Luat, who represents Nguyen Thi Viet and Ngo Thi Dung in this lawsuit, was prevented by Ho Chi Minh City police from departing for Hanoi on March 3 (see March 3 entry below).

The Vietnam government bestowed on both Hanoi Moi and VTV1 television of Hanoi the 2008 "Award for Excellence in Journalism" for their coverage of the Thai Ha parish controversy.

Sources: Hanoi Moi, Feb. 28; Eglises d'Asie/Viet Catholic News March 5. See also Viet Catholic News Jan. 22 for commentary on the award to these two media organizations.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Lawyer Le Tran Luat detained

Vietnam human rights lawyer Le Tran Luat says he was detained by Ho Chi Minh City police for questioning on Tuesday, as he was about to board a plane for Hanoi, just days after his office in Ho Chi Minh City was raided by police and five computers seized. Luat has been defending Catholics involved in a land dispute in Hanoi over Thai Ha parish and was enroute to Hanoi in order to work on a defense for the appeal of their sentence. The local police newspaper has been denouncing him for alleged tax fraud and faking house rental contracts, in what appears to be an act of political intimidation and possibly establishing the ground for future arrest.

Source: Agence France Presse March 2.

Ho Thi Bich Khuong's mistreatment protested

International Pen's Writers in Prison Committee is concerned over the ill-treatment and poor health of dissident writer Ho Thi Bich Khuong, it said in a press release issued Feb. 13. The commitee is calling for her immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and that she be given full access to proper medical care and family visits while she remains in prison.

Khuong was arrested April 25, 2007 at an Interner cafe in Nam Dan district of Nghe An province in northern Vietnam, for publishing reports on overseas websies about social injustice and human rights violations in the country. She is particularly known for her advocacy of woman farmers who have had their lands seized. Her computer and documents were confiscated from her home after her arrest.

She was not brought to trial until nearly a year after her arrest, on April 24, 2008, by a provincial court in Nghe An. She was charged with "storing cultural products with contents against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam", a violation of Article 88 of Vietnam's Criminal Code, and sentenced to two years in prison and three years administrative detention. She is detained in Labor Camp 6, Thanh My village, Thanh Chuong district of Nghe An province. Her sister who visited her on October 30, 2008 said she was heavily bruised and in poor health. The family has been denied visits since last December.

The press release also noted her past difficulties with authorities:

"Ho Thi Bich Khuong was previously detained in March 2005 and sentenced to six months in prison for her dissident writings. After her release she was subject to frequent brief detentions and harassment, including threats and attack. On 12 February 2007 she was seriously injured after being hit by a motorcyclist, thought to be a member of the security police. Her current imprisonment was not known to PEN until November 2008.

"Ho Thi Bich Khuong was born in 1967. In June 2006 her husband drowned in the Lam river under unexplained circumstances. She has a ten-year-old daughter."

Writers in Prison Committee is requesting that letters be sent to Vietnam government officials appealing for her immediate release, assurances that she is treated well in the meantime, and access to family visits and proper medical care.

source: International Pen Writers in Prison Committee press release, Feb. 11.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung dies, funeral held in Hanoi

Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung, archbishop emeritus of Hanoi, passed away Feb. 22, at the age of 89. His funeral in Hanoi on Feb. 26 was attended by over 30,000, including 20 bishops and 500 priests, and many ethnic minority highlanders from his former diocese of Bac Ninh. The funeral was broadcast by the church on closed circuit television. Pope Benedict expressed his sadness and asked God to welcome this pastor "who, through difficult circumstances, was able to serve the Church with great courage and generous loyalty to the See of Peter, tirelessly dedicating himself to the announcement of the Gospel."

Cardinal Tung's life as a priest followed the trials and tribulations of war and repression under a regime which over the decades has been frequently hostile and controlling in its policies toward the Catholic Church and other religions. He was ordained as a priest in 1949 at the age of 29, and became bishop of Bac Ninh diocese in 1963, a post he held for the next 31 years. Of this period, Catholic News Agency notes:

"During more than 25 of the years he served as bishop of Bac Ninh, Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung was placed under house arrest and prevented from visiting the 100 different parishes under his care. Determined to spread the Gospel despite his circumstances, he dedicated himself to telling the story of the Jesus’ life and ministry, Church teachings, the 10 Commandments and explaining the Sacraments in a type of poem called 'luc bat.' The six to eight word stanzas enabled the faithful to easily learn the faith.

"Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung also created a system for the faithful to maintain parish life in his absence and founded a school to train children as catechists. The school already has 200 graduates who have returned to all parts of Vietnam."

During this period, due in part to the exodus of many priests in 1954, but more so to the unwillingness of the North Vietnam government to approve ordinations of priests, the number of priests in Bac Ninh diocese numbered only three, to serve over 100 parishes. To help remedy this situation, he formed lay councils to carry on the religious life of the parishes.

Cardinal Tung was appointed apostolic administrator of Hanoi in 1990, after the death that year of Hanoi Cardinal Joseph Trinh Van Can. He became archbishop of Hanoi in 1994 and made a Cardinal the same year. He retired at the age of 85 in 2005. One of his last public acts was to have a protest statement read out Hanoi churches against the seizure by city authorities of buildings that once belonged to the old Vatican nunciature.

Sources: Asiannews.It, Feb. 28, Feb. 23; Spero forum Feb. 27; Straits Times Feb. 26; Associated Press, Feb. 24; Catholic Culture Feb. 26; Catholic News Agency Feb. 23; Vietcatholicnet Feb. 22; Feb. 24 [text of Pope's condolence letter].