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Vietnam Reconciling with Churches but Vatican Ties Still Strained

April 26, 1988

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ The communist government has taken significant steps toward reconciliation with Vietnam’s Roman Catholic and Protestant minorities, but it remains in serious dispute with the Vatican.

The Vietnamese authorities object to Vatican plans to canonize 117 people, including 11 Spaniards and 10 Frenchmen, who died at the hands of Vietnamese rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Vatican holds the victims to be martyrs who died in a period of repression of Catholicism, but Vietnam maintains they were agents of French colonialism.

Hanoi says it does not oppose the canonization as such, but objects to the way it says Vietnamese abroad have seized on it to make it an anti-communist political issue.

″This canonization is not any more a religious affair,″ Vu Thai Hoa, an official of the government’s Commission on Religious Affairs, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The martyrs were beatified earlier this century as the first step toward sainthood. Vietnam was a French colony at the time. The Vatican announced the canonization last June and the elevations are scheduled to take place this June 19.

Hoa charged that the Vatican never consulted with Hanoi about the canonization.

He said those to be canonized include Frenchmen who invaded the country disguised as missionaries.

Hoa added that in the documents promoting the cause of sainthood, the Vatican should delete charges that Vietnamese authorities have persecuted the church for 300 years.

He also said references to Republic of Vietnam - the name of the pre-1975 government in South Vietnam - should be changed to the Vietnam’s current official name, Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

He also said Vietnam also wants the the date of the ceremony changed because June 19 was the army holiday of the old South Vietnamese government, which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong defeated in 1975.

Hanoi’s main concern, however, appears to be that thousands of the estimated 1 million overseas Vietnamese will stage protests at the ceremony to be officiated by Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Basilica and call on Catholics in Vietnam to oppose their government.

″They are preparing South Vietnam flags and anti-communist posters for the occasion,″ Hoa said.

Vietnamese officials also are concerned that this may be the first step in an attempt to set up a church in exile.

(A Vatican source, speaking on condition of anonmyity, said protests won’t be permitted at the ceremony but added that the documents of sainthood were prepared long ago and can’t be changed. The date was ″pure coincidence,″ the source said, adding that the ceremony was to have been June 26 but had to be changed because Pope John Paul II had another commitment.)

Hoa said about 2,500 Catholic priests and 5 million Catholics remain in Vietnam, along with about 400 Protestant pastors and 200,000 Protestants.

Vietnam is a mainly Buddhist country of 63 million people.

Vietnamese emperors executed some Catholics after the first missionaries began arriving in the late 16th century. American missionaries brought Protestantism to Vietnam early this century.

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics streamed south when the country was divided in 1954 into the communist North and non-communist South. Many fled the country after the communists reunified it in 1975.

Protestants and Catholics were perceived as having backed not only the French, but later South Vietnam and its ally, the United States.

South Vietnam and the Vatican had official relations.

The Vietnamese Communist Party leader, Nguyen Van Linh, who came to power in December 1986, has called for an end to discrimination against Catholics, saying they have a valuable role to play in Vietnam’s development.

Since then, dozens of priests, many of them military chaplains or otherwise associated with the South Vietnam government, were freed from so-called political re-education camps the communists established after winning the war.

Hoa said almost all priests have now been released.

In February 1987, authorities reopened in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the first Catholic seminary since all of them were closed by 1982. This past February officials permitted the opening in Hanoi, the nation’s capital, the first Protestant seminary since the last previous one was closed in 1976. Hoa said two more Catholic seminaries probably will be opened by year’s end.

Last year, two Vietnamese Catholic prelates were allowed to attend the Worldwide Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, and the head of the Protestant church in northern Vietnam was permitted to go to Western Europe for a church congress. Priests also have been freer to travel inside Vietnam and to talk with foreigners.

There are signs, too, that churches will be allowed to resume social welfare work, such as in schools and orphanages, a move likely to bring more aid from Christian relief agencies in the West. In November, government officials met with Catholic relief agency officials from 13 Western countries.

Suspicions remain, however, that the government is actually trying to co- opt church leaders rather than allow more freedom.

The archbishop of Hue, the Rev. Nguyen Kim Dien, remains under house arrest for opposing a state-supervised organization for priests.

The Rev. Tran Dinh Thu, who is 81 years old, has been sentenced to life in prison after his conviction of printing propaganda and training dissidents in his Ho Chi Minh City church.

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