Catholic unrest proving tricky

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 1997, 12:00am

Few things disturb the Vietnamese Communist Party more than the long-term threat posed by rural instability.

And when it is combined with southern and Catholic sensibilities such as the unrest in the province in Dong Nai this week, it will surely tax the most senior minds in the ruling Politburo.

The trouble - which appears to be locally motivated - comes despite wider efforts by Hanoi to extend an olive branch to Vietnam's Catholics after years of hardline Marxism which left little room for conventional religious freedom.

The party remains staunchly atheist but Vietnam is a fundamentally Buddhist country and remains Southeast Asia's second-biggest Catholic nation, with an estimated two million followers - an enduring legacy of French colonialism.

Many left Hanoi in 1954 for the non-communist south when the country was carved into two - a factor which could add to sensitivities in the Dong Nai situation.

Party officials claim complete religious freedom exists, but closer inspection reveals it is usually channelled through carefully authorised organisations under the umbrella of the Fatherland Front.

Most diplomatic attention is on the restrictions on outlawed Buddhist groups; meanwhile, Vietnam's Catholics have been growing more open.

Religion in general remains a prickly topic in Vietnam but recently Catholics have reported feeling much more comfortable with the open expression of their beliefs.

Dong Nai remains a key hub, as does the central north and Hanoi.

Hopes were raised when then-prime minister Vo Van Kiet, who frequently voiced concerns at a growing rise in 'superstition', met senior Catholics two Christmases ago and insisted they had a key role to play in Vietnam's social and economic reforms. Top church figures were invited to major state events and since then religious images and carefully screened texts have been openly sold in many areas of the country and adorn private homes.

More churches have re-opened and attendances at weekly Mass reportedly are up.

Last Christmas the midnight service at Hanoi's St Paul's Cathedral was broadcast in the streets before a crowd of several thousand.

Relations with the Vatican are still touchy, with Hanoi insisting on the right to screen senior church appointments. Both sides meet once a year at ministerial level.

'It is going to be a tricky situation for Hanoi but, whatever it does, it is going to do something fast, but also carefully,' a Hanoi diplomat who discreetly monitors religious freedoms said on Monday.

'In their own way they have been trying to appease the Catholics on a wider level, but this hard-won ground will quickly be lost. They must know many eyes will be on them too.'