A senior Vatican official said Monday there are still difficulties in reestablishing firm diplomatic ties with Vietnam after talks with officials from Hanoi, while Catholics in the officially atheist country fumed over a recent violent crackdown.
Monsignor Barnabe Nguyen Van Phuong, the Asian affairs chief of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, did not elaborate on the difficulties in last week’s talks with the delegation from the Vietnamese government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, saying only that the problems were from the Vietnamese side.
But Vatican analysts said the talks—aimed at establishing warmer ties between the two governments which have no formal diplomatic relations—were dogged by the Sept. 4 crackdown on parishioners at the My Yen church of the Vinh diocese in Nghe An province.
The official Vatican news agency reported on Thursday near the end of the Sept. 15-20 talks that dialogue between the two sides “continues on a path of good relations and cooperation.”
But it said Vatican officials had raised the issue of “tension in the diocese of Vinh,” which they said merits “further investigation.”
Phuong said the Vatican’s representative in Vietnam, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, would be closely probing the incident, in which police fired gunshots and lobbed grenades to disperse hundreds of demonstrators demanding the release of two parishioners arrested months earlier.
“The Vatican’s representative in Vietnam will report to the Vatican about the incident,” he said.
“He has the responsibility to find out in detail what happened. We need to hear from the priests and Catholics who were involved in this incident.”
“We have heard about it from the government of Vietnam, but we have not heard the opinions of the Vietnamese Catholic Church.”
The talks were led on the Vietnamese side by Minister of Home Affairs Pham Dung and on the Vatican side by its Under-Secretary for Relations with States Antoine Camilleri and Under-Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples Tadeusz Wojda.
They were the fourth round since 2009 and come after Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was granted a rare private audience with the former Pope Benedict XVI in January.
Analyst Nguyen Dan Truc, formerly a professor of Catholic theology at the University of Strasbourg in France, said that although last week’s round of talks were not high-level, they were key as they came at a sensitive time in the wake of the crackdown and the naming of the Vatican’s new secretary of state Archbishop Pietro Parolin.
“There were some new developments that made people pay attention to this trip—the new foreign minister that the Vatican got at the beginning of September and the tensions in Vinh diocese, especially the religious repression,” he told RFA.
Vietnamese state media reported last week that the Vatican had expressed its wish to “strengthen relations with Vietnam” and called on Vietnamese parishioners to “abide by the country’s laws.”
“They said the Vatican told Catholics in Vietnam to respect the law. That makes people think the Vinh crackdown was mentioned during the trip,” Truc said.
At least seven people were injured in the crackdown, which came as hundreds of demonstrators demanded the promised release of Ngo Van Khoi and Nguyen Van Hai, who were taken away in June by suspected government security agents and have remained in detention without trial.
Some 180 priests and Catholic leaders from three provinces who met in the Trai Gao church on Sept. 16 to discuss the incident issued a statement denouncing police action and rejecting government and media accusations that parishioners had provoked police into “attacking” them.
“The statement is based on the truth—that is, that the government cracked down on people violently—while all the [domestic] media accuse our leaders without any evidence,” vice chairman of the Vinh Presbyterial Council the Rev. Nguyen Van Vinh told RFA this week.
In their statement the leaders denounced the crackdown as “an inhuman and illegal act directed and implemented by the Nghe An police.”
“We strongly condemn this violence against the civilians,” it said.
It said the government had through the media and through an official Sept. 8 statement from the Nghe An People’s Committee sought to "cover up the truth, vilify our archbishop and priests, tell lies to the public, and make dialogue between the Vinh diocese and Nghe An government more difficult.”
They also demanded the release of Ngo Van Khoi and Nguyen Van Hai and said the government must take “full responsibility” for the crackdown.
Vietnam and the Holy See—the government of the Catholic Church— have not had formal diplomatic relations since Vietnam’s communist government took over in 1975, but have been working toward closer ties since resuming dialogue in 2007, establishing a Joint Working Group to discuss the restart of full ties.
Since 2011, the Vatican has had a nonresidential representative in Vietnam, and last year a bilateral meeting was held in Hanoi.
Religious activity is closely monitored in the communist Vietnamese state, which is home to some 6 million Catholics, the most of any country in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.