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from issue no. 11 - 2003

VIETNAM. The new legislation on religion

Hô Chi Minh and the Cardinal

by Gianni Valente

For the last two and a half years in Vietnam the Religious Affairs Office has been busy drafting new legislation on religion. The bureaucratic machine feeds on its own infuriating delays, which have already produced twenty working drafts of the law. In an effort to avoid or prevent nasty shocks, the new cardinal of Hôchiminhville, Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân, recently made a surprize move. At the end of June he sent a letter to the highest state authorities, including the President of the National Assembly and the Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, suggesting that a stop be put and the “bumph” of drafts be set aside and a return made to of all things the first ordinance on religion signed in the long-ago June of 1955 by the founding father of communist Vietnam, President Hô Chi Minh himself.
Il presidente Hô Chi Minh

Il presidente Hô Chi Minh

The whole letter (published in full in no. 379 of Eglises d’Asie, the news bulletin of the Missions étrangéres de Paris) backs ordinance 234 on religion issued by the legendary leader at the dawn of his epic career as the non plus ultra of religious legislation, fully fitting the current situation in Vietnam. In the archbishop’s letter no praise is spared for the «open-minded spirit that animated President Hô» and his religious legislation that, also according to authoritative Vietnamese jurists, «clearly reflects the concepts and attitudes of our State in its work of institutionalizing religious policy», and expresses «humanist ideas that satisfy the feelings and reason, regulating religious questions in typically Vietnamese fashion». The new Cardinal also seems to play on the fears of a government confronted with the progressive fading of old ideological myths in the new consumer society of Vietnam, when he writes: «In this time of renewal and adaptation in which the Party and the State never stop reminding us that the ideas of Hô Chi Minh need stressing, we suggest that they be brought back in full in the new ordinance on religions… In order to operate a policy “favourable both to the sacred and the profane” we propose to the State that it take ordinance 234 of President Hô as the basis of the ordinance concerning religious activities».
All this concern «to go back to the fountainhead» so as correct the proposed legislation «in the spirit of President Hô» becomes quite clear when the Archbishop goes through the fundamental articles of the old ordinance one by one. Which, in effect, guaranteed the non-interference of the civilian powers in the internal affairs of the Church, the free preaching of foreign missionaries, authorization to open private schools where catechism could be taught and also seminaries, without prefixed limits as to numbers. In article 13 Hô Chi Minh directly recognized that «relations between the Church of Vietnam and the Holy See of Rome constitute an affair internal to Catholicism». It should be said that the fine principles remained on paper. Some time after the publication of the ordinance, North Vietnam expelled foreign missionaries, schools and seminaries were suppressed and persecution began. But even purely formal appeal to the codicils signed by the founding father of the country has allowed «the Catholic Church of Vietnam to follow an evolution different from that of the Church of China» (Églises d’Asie). And the application of the “liberal” norms labelled Hô Chi Minh also remains something to be wished for compared to the present situation, where the government exercises the “right of veto” on episcopal appointments and imposes pared-down quotas on admission to the seminaries of the young aspirant priests. Restrictions that might get encoded in the drafts of the law under discussion. The Archbishop’s letter also quotes article 24 of the 20th draft ordinance, that «obliges religious dignitaries in their functions to obtain from the central or local authorities approval and written recognition to be able to perform religious activities. Such a disposition», comments the new Cardinal, «is not realistic, it makes the clergy too dependent on the powers that be and could provoke numerous disputes».
It is not the first time that Archbishop Pham Minh Mân has made recourse to formulas and figures familiar to the Vietnamese leadership in his relations with the government. In December 2002, in another letter, his cogent criticism of present Vietnamese society and its administration by the political leadership deplored the failure to achieve the goals set out by the 6th Congress of the Communist Party and suggested that the background to government action should be the fight against all forms of «alienation» (pivotal concept in the thinking of Karl Marx). Without dragging in such well-thought-of “western” categories as freedom of conscience and civil rights. A deferential approach to the established cultural and political framework that makes use, mutatis mutandis, of a strategy worked out two thousand years ago. From when Saint Paul, in his clash with the law, made appeal to his Roman citizenship («Civis romanus sum») in asking the power of the time to respect the legal guarantees established by itself.

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