The ringing of the bell from St. Joseph’s Cathedral normally signaled a call to prayer for the church’s Hanoi parishioners, but on Christmas Eve in 1959, the sound was an appeal for help.
A year earlier, the communist government in Hanoi, eager to show that it valued “religious freedom,” had sent a group of people to decorate the church with lamps and flowers, only to later demand an exorbitant fee for the labor and materials.
This time, the cathedral’s priests were ready.
When the “decorators” arrived again, Father Nguyen Van Vinh blocked their entry while fellow priest Trinh Van Can rang the church bell summoning St. Joseph’s parishioners, and a scuffle ensued.
The two priests and several parishioners were charged with disturbing the peace.
Father Can received 12 months' probation, while Father Vinh was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “illegally gathering, disturbing security, attempting to slander and distort the regime, and scheming to drive a wedge between the people.”
But Father Vinh’s punishment was only part of a religious crackdown initiated in Vietnam in 1959 that led to what religious experts recollect as a systematic suppression of seminaries in northern Vietnam.
“They had a plan that in forty years, there would be no Catholics [left] in Vietnam,” said Father Nguyen Thanh Duong, the priest of Quy Hau parish in northern Nghe An province, who was arrested several times during the purge.
“Priests who listened to the authorities would be left alone. Otherwise, priests would be arrested,” said the church leader.
“Monks at the seminary who didn’t want to get married would be sent to concentration camps for re-education.”
Although religious persecution under communist rule eased a decade later in 1970, rights groups have expressed concern over what they see as a new increase in violations of religious freedom in Vietnam, including harassment and the use of excessive force against congregation members.
Last May, clashes occurred between Catholic Con Dau parishioners near central Da Nang city and the police over the seizure of their land by the government.
The parishioners had complained of inadequate compensation and relocation problems and were particularly angered over the government’s decision to reclaim a 10-hectare (25-acre) cemetery, located one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the parish church and believed to be 135 years old.
Christian groups now often point to the persecution of church leaders half a century ago to underscore resilience in the face of repression by the Vietnamese authorities.
Father Nguyen Viet Cuong, who belonged to Vạn Phan parish in Nghe An province, said the arrest of priests began in earnest following a circular signed in 1960 by Ho Chi Minh, the late president and founder of today’s communist Vietnam.
“At that time, there was an order from the (Communist) Party Central Committee. The instruction didn’t let the offspring of landlords and 'reactionary elements' join the priesthood … I was a victim of that circular,” he said.
“Monks had to get married. But monks didn’t want to get married, and authorities said these monks still wanted to become priests. Therefore, the monks were put in concentration camps without a trial or verdict.”
Father Vinh was initially jailed at a prison that later became famous during the Vietnam War as the "Hanoi Hilton," a facility in which captured U.S. servicemen were interrogated and tortured, but was eventually transferred to a newer jail called Cong Troi (Heaven Gate) Prison.
The majority of prisoners at Heaven Gate were criminals with sentences of 15 years or more. Many had been sentenced to death.
But Heaven Gate Prison was also home to a large number of political prisoners whom Hanoi had deemed unfit to rejoin society, including religious prisoners targeted during the purge.
The prison facility was located at an altitude of approximately 2,000-2,500 meters (6,600-8,200 feet) in the mountains, about 55 kilometers (35 miles) outside of the seat of Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province. Quan Ba district, on the border with China, lay to its north.
Cliffs and thick forests surrounded the prison, with a prison cemetery in the back known as Ba Then Hill.
Many of the surviving prisoners were reluctant to speak about their personal experiences at Heaven Gate, but a few who were interviewed by RFA said that now, at their advanced age, they no longer care how the communist government views their activities.
A former inmate, Tran Nhat Kim, recalled his first days at the prison.
“The day after we arrived at Heaven Gate Prison I met an officer who told me that this would be my last residence. He said I was not to think of my family nor hope to return to them again.”
“[A second officer] told us, “You are free to escape. But I want to let you know that until now no one has been able to leave this camp. You have two choices. One is to stay here. The other is leaving through the back door to Ba Then Hill.’”
Abuse led to death
Prisoners at Heaven Gate were routinely subjected to starvation, extreme weather, torture, and solitary confinement as punishment for their “crimes,” former inmates recall. And when they suffered injuries they were refused basic medical treatment.
It was a combination of these conditions, as well as his refusal to abandon his religious beliefs, that led to the death of Father Vinh.
Many others held at Heaven Gate also died, said another former soldier, Captain Kieu Duy Vinh, who was imprisoned along with 71 other people, including some Catholic priests, seminarians, and parishioners, at the facility in 1959.
“There were two priests, Father Vinh from the Hanoi Diocese and father Que from the Nghe An Diocese. The rest were clergymen … The first two to be killed were Father Vinh and Father Que. Then other monks all took their turn to die.”
“[Rights activist] Nguyen Huu Dang … and I were the only two who didn’t make the sign of the cross and because we were not Christians we survived. But all of the other 70 people died,” Vinh said.
Heaven Gate Prison was closed in 1978 and was destroyed during the Sino-Vietnamese War that followed next year.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.