President calls for religious freedom

HO Chi Mihn City, Vietnam — President Bush, touting "the freedom to worship as you see fit," attended an ecumenical service at a Catholic church in Hanoi on Sunday morning before flying south to this city that once stood as the capital of resistance against the communist government of the north.

Yet in Ho Chi Minh City—still called Saigon by religious and political reform activists—Truong Van Duc found no comfort in the visiting president's worship. A demonstration that Truong planned Sunday to protest religious repression was canceled, he said, after police arrested him and beat two fellow activists.

The communist-run government's statements about respecting religious rights, Truong said, are "only a show, and not true. They force us to be a member of their state-controlled church. If not, they persecute severely, and I am a victim of that."

The U.S. State Department only recently removed Vietnam from its list of "countries of concern" on religious freedom—days before Vietnam hosted an economic summit of Pacific Rim nations interested in spurring trade throughout the region. And Bush has attempted to spotlight the progress that this emerging nation is making, economically and on the fronts of political freedom and respect for religious rights.

"A whole society is a society that welcomes basic freedoms," Bush, a born-again Christian, said after attending services at the Cua Bac Cathedral. "And there's no more basic freedom than … the freedom to worship as you see fit."

Yet that freedom does not exist in Vietnam, activists and some outsiders say.

Truong, a member of a Buddhist sect that arose here during French colonial days, tells a tale of repression by the government that unified Vietnam.

"I am a member of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church,'' he said in a telephone interview. "Our church is suppressed severely, and we cannot freely practice our religion.''

In many cases, Vietnamese worshipers have said they practice their faith without problem. Retired factory worker Nguyen Thi Ngat told a newspaper here: "'I go to the temple about twice a month and never have any problems."

Yet the government remains particularly sensitive about certain groups, especially Catholics, evangelical Christians and the local Hoa Hao Buddhists, who pray at their homes instead of in temples, and the Cao Dai sect, an amalgam of many faiths.

The Hoa Hao emerged in the late 1930s as a reform Buddhist movement led by a faith healer, and the sect's simplicity attracted many impoverished people, according to historian Stanley Karnow, a former war correspondent here who writes about Vietnam.

The service Bush attended was hosted by Ngo Quang Kiet, archbishop of Hanoi, and delivered by Rev. Joseph Nguyen Van Diem, vice rector of St. Joseph's Seminary. This was a service of "historic significance," according to a statement from the church, as it was the first ecumenical service at the church, combining elements of Catholic and evangelical services.

"My hope is that people all across the world will be able to express" religious freedom, Bush said. "And it's our way of expressing our personal faith and, at the same time, urging societies to feel comfortable with, and confident in saying to their people, if you feel like praising God you're allowed to do so in any way you see fit."

But Truong maintains that he has no such freedom. He has served two years of house arrest for his practice of Hoa Hao Buddhism, he said.

"We want the world to see a correct picture of Vietnam," he said of his protests. "We want the Vietnamese government to leave us alone so we can practice our religion as we wish."