WASHINGTON, May 18, 2001 - Several hundred followers of a detained Vietnamese Catholic priest on Friday protested his arrest by staging a surprise visit to the prison where authorities are holding him, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported. On Thursday, Vietnamese police surrounded Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly's church in the central city of Hue and arrested him as part of an ongoing crackdown on religious leaders. Police nabbed Ly, 54, during a pre-dawn prayer service at An Truyen Catholic Church, in front of 150 parishioners. Ly faces up to 12 years in jail if convicted on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. RFA?s Vietnamese service - which broke the news of Ly's arrest on Thursday - learned of his detention from another priest in Hue. Ly remained at Thua Phu Prison in Hue on Friday, according to a Vietnamese source who requested anonymity. To protest his detention, several hundred parishioners traveled from the church early Friday to try to visit Ly, but police turned them back as they approached the prison, the source said. The local archdiocese meanwhile sent another priest, Le Thanh Hoang, to visit the parish early Friday. Hoang urged the congregation to complain to authorities that they would accept only Ly as their pastor, according to another source who asked not to be named. Vietnamese officials have sought to contain Ly, whom they accuse of slandering the government, for some time. In February, one source said, officials pressed the archdiocese to discipline Ly but the archdiocese refused. U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and frequent critic of Hanoi, voiced outrage at Ly's arrest and predicted it could complicate efforts to win congressional approval for a pending U.S.-Vietnamese trade deal. "On religious freedom there seems to be more control (now), not less," he said, despite increased bilateral trade. RFA's full report is available on the World Wide Web, at www.rfa.org. Radio Free Asia is a private, nonprofit corporation broadcasting news and information to those countries in Asia where full, accurate, and timely news reports are unavailable. Created by Congress in 1996, RFA aims to deliver such news reports - along with opinions and commentaries - and to provide a forum for a variety of voices and opinions. RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest journalistic standards and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance, and fairness in its editorial content.