From ............... Anchorage Daily News

June 26, 1994

Pages M-1,M-5

Picture caption: "Shafts of light slant through the incense smoke in HanoiÕs Quan Su - Ambassadors - Pagoda. The former hospice for visiting Buddhist scholars has become the center of Buddhism for N. Vietnam.


Director of National Geographic News Service

DANANG, Vietnam - On a balmy Sunday afternoon, an overflow crowd of more than 750 Roman Catholics waits for the Rev. Anthony Nguyen Truong Thang to deliver his third sermon of the day. Outside, hundreds more worshipers kneel on the hard concrete beneath the twin spires of the Danang Cathedral as the Mass begins in this provincial seaport, where Portuguese and Italian missionaries brought Christianity to Indochina in 1615.

Thang walks among his people, quietly shaking hands and exchanging greetings with parishioners who say they are now free to pray in this officially atheistic country - but within fairly stringent limits.

"Christians were severely persecuted by the Vietnamese kings at Hue long before there were communists," says the soft-spoken, philosophical priest, who recently returned to Danang after 13 years of forced internal exile because of his close ties to U S military chaplains during the Vietnam War.

"Now we are accused by the authorities of being collaborators with the French or the Americans," Thang says. "Still, we keep our faith." But keeping the faith in Vietnam, one of the world's last communist countries, isn't easy.

Following the collapse of the U.S.-backed Saigon government in 1975, seminaries were closed, churches and temples seized and hundreds of clergy sent to re-education camps.

Thang's sermons, which are subject to censorship by the government's Religious Affairs Committee are crafted homilies that mix traditional gospel with mild social activism-compassion for orphans, street children and drug offenders.

Nineteen years after the war, the [Roman] Catholic schools of Thang's parish - the largest in southern Vietnam Ñ remain closed.

[Roman Catholic] Nuns who run a kindergarten in an adjacent convent say that they are subjected to police surveillance and that their mail is routinely censored.

"Human-rights issues, including religious freedom, strike at the core of the Communist Party's fear of losing control to alternative power bases," says a high-level U.S. State Department official in Washington.

"The bottom line is that the Vietnamese are freer today to worshipÑ just look at how full are the churches and pagodas - so long as Vietnamese do not publicly undermine the government's authority."

The United States has made progress on human rights a condition for normalizing relations with Hanoi since President Clinton in February lifted a 30-year old trade embargo against the former enemy.

A senior American official says that while "long-term trends are in the right direction," many abuses need to be righted before Washington grants full diplomatic recognition to the one-party government in Hanoi.

International human rights groups accuse Hanoi of cracking down on religious activism even as the government encourages Vietnam's moribund economy.

The harsh treatment of [Roman] Catholic and Buddhist clerics contrasts sharply with the government's loosening of other constraints, including restrictions on internal travel and contact with foreign visitors and journalists.

In recent months, Hanoi has jailed 11 Buddhist clerics in the former imperial capital of Hue and the oil-boom town of Vung Tau for challenging government control of Buddhist organizations and distributing anti-government leaflets.

In the most celebrated case, a Hue court late last year imposed stiff prison sentences on five dissident monks and five laymen in the Unified Buddhist Church for whooping up the largest public demonstration in the nation since the war's end.

Security forces have jailed evangelical Christians in the Central Highlands for holding home prayer meetings and have beaten Hmong tribesmen in the rugged mountains of northwestern Vietnam after they converted to Christianity reportedly after listening to a series of shortwave radio broad casts .

Government officials continue to restrict the movement of [Roman] Catholic priests, including Thang, within their parishes .

Hanoi has feuded publicly with the Vatican over the appointment of Nguyen Van Thuan, a nephew of the late South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, as archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, the top [Roman] Catholic post in Vietnam.

The Vatican now says it has reluctantly agreed to give Vietnam a say in appointing bishops for the nation's 6 million Catholics.

"A long road must still be traveled before there is full religious freedom in Vietnam," says Monsignor Claudio Celli, deputy Vatican foreign minster.

In testimony before a U.S. congressional committee in March, Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, said that "religions remain under tight official surveillance" in Vietnam.

Officials in Hanoi censor sermons, restrict home prayer meetings, decide who can become a cleric and require monks and priests to participate in state-con trolled propaganda and political groups, Jones said.

Human-rights organizations say that Hanoi's anxieties are fueled by the collapse of its erstwhile Soviet-bloc allies, which allowed religious activists to challenge communist control in Poland, Hungary and Russia . The ruling politburo also knows that today's Buddhist dissidents including those recently jailed in Hue are disciples of the same monks who toppled the [Roman Catholic] Diem government in 1963 in a series of anti-government demonstrations and self-immolations that were televised worldwide.

The Unified Buddhist Church, according to Human Rights Watch/Asia, has been singled out for particularly harsh treatment.

Government spokesmen routinely denounce its leader, the Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, for ''usurping church leadership.''

Government "minders" refused to allow a National Geographic correspondent to interview the monk's followers at the Lien Mu Pagoda, a picturesque hotbed of Buddhist dissent overlooking the Perfume River in Hue.

The Washington-based Puebla Institute, a lay [Roman] Catholic human-rights group, lists about 130 Buddhist, Catholic and evangelical Christians in Vietnam who are either in prison or under house arrest for their religious activities.

Although Hanoi has allowed a few dozen priests and ministers to be ordained in recent years, there still are not enough clergy to serve the spiritual needs of this pluralistic country.

The number of monks serving the nation's overwhelmingly Buddhist population - somewhere been 65 and 80 percent of Vietnam's 71 million citizens - has fallen from about 30,000 in 1975 to 20,000 today.

Protestants in southern Vietnam have only 200 pastors, down from 500 at the end of the war, even though church membership has more than doubled to 500,000.