Priest imprisoned for urging freedom

Western groups are pressing the Vietnamese communist government to reconsider its imprisonment of a Catholic priest sentenced for speaking out in favor of religious liberty and social change.

The Rev. Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, 56, was arrested in May 2001 after a trial without a defense lawyer or public audience, said the British charity Jubilee Campaign. The priest was sentenced to 15 years in solitary confinement and an additional five years probation.

In solitary confinement in Nam Ha province, Van Ly is barred from speaking to the guards who bring him his food and drink twice a day, Jubilee Campaign said.

During a rare visit from relatives, the priest declared: "My duty and my conscience required me to fight for the freedom of our church. If I had realized those terrifying situations for our church and had not done anything, I would have been guilty before God. Now I think I have accomplished my duty, I do not feel sorry for myself."

Amnesty International, which has adopted Van Ly as a prisoner of conscience, noted he had previously spent one year in prison from 1977 to 1978 and a further nine years between 1983 and 1992 for ''opposing the revolution and destroying the people's unity.''

Lord David Alton, a member of the British House of Lords, said he met with Vietnamese officials earlier this year and asked for clemency for Van Ly and his early release.

During a visit to Hanoi with U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., Alton said he brought up Van Ly's case with Le Quang Vinh, head of Vietnam's Committee on Religion.

Quang Vinh denies religious persecution occurs in Vietnam and insists people like Van Ly have been arrested for acting subversively against the Communist Party:

"It was not because he contacted the Congress," he said. "Van Ly tried to upset the people. He encouraged their illegal right to own land, he lied that there was no true freedom in Vietnam and he refused to obey the authorities and accept their control. He armed his group to fight the authorities."

Alton said he asked the government official where Van Ly bought his guns and weapons. Quang Vinh replied, "They had sticks and knives, not guns."

Alton insisted "the reality is that a group of about 35 frightened parishioners had gathered for sanctuary in his church" when it was surrounded by 600 armed security officers a report confirmed by Dang Cong Dieu, chairman of the People's Committee in Phy An.

Quang Vinh later contacted Alton and Pitts to say the number of officers was 200.

The official told the foreign lawmakers they could not visit Van Ly but promised to place their plea for clemency before Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

"As the Vietnamese prime minister now reconsiders the case we need widespread international pressure," said Alton, who noted that Van Ly has peacefully campaigned for religious freedom for more than 30 years.

Vietnam's official line, as reported by its news agency, is Van Ly was arrested at An Truyen church, Phu An commune, in central Thua Thien-Hue province, for his alleged "failure to abide by the decisions on his probation issued by authorized state agencies." He was charged with defying a state order of confinement and "undermining the state policy of great unity."

Under party control

Vietnamese authorities allow a greater degree of religious freedom than in the 1990s, but the government still keeps all religious institutions in its control under the umbrella of the Communist Party's Fatherland Front. Members of unsanctioned groups frequently suffer harassment, arrest and imprisonment, and the state-approved organizations face many restrictions, including limitations on training and ordination of clergy.

Vietnam has a Roman Catholic minority of about 8 million among its mostly Buddhist population. Protestant churches are growing rapidly, particularly among tribal groups. Other faiths include the indigenous Cao Dai and Hoa Hao movements.

Wilfred Wong, Jubilee's researcher and parliamentary officer, said Van Ly is one of numerous Christians imprisoned for their faith in Vietnam, including believers from the Hmong, Degar and Mien ethnic minorities.

"Some have even been executed by lethal injection, and we know that this has happened to Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands," he said. "The ethnic minority tribal Christians in Vietnam are bearing the brunt of anti-Christian persecution."

In written testimony submitted to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001, Van Ly called on the Communist government to allow the churches to appoint their own priests, to stop listing a person's religious affiliation on their ID card, to return confiscated property and to release those held for their religious beliefs.

He also had urged Congress to postpone ratification of a bilateral trade agreement while religious persecution persisted.

In response to his U.S. testimony, the Vietnamese army newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan said Van Ly's "move to invite foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam's internal affairs is nothing other than setting the snake to one's own hencoop."

The Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan said: "What a crazy idea he has! He has hurt the morality, ideas and soul of 80 million Vietnamese at home and several million Vietnamese living abroad."

The paper said, "Ironically enough, Ly, passing himself as having acted on behalf of justice and human rights, has said foul, groundless slanders and distortion against his motherland."