With his wizened brow, clerical collar and priestly air, Father Anton Le Ngoc Thanh seems an unlikely poster boy for political dissidence.
Yet the priest at the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in Ho Chi Minh City pulls no punches when it comes to violating political taboos.
He has been arrested 10 times, is banned from leaving the country and last year hosted a provocative rally that not only honoured veterans of the defeated South Vietnamese US puppet state, but displayed its three-striped yellow flag – an act that has landed other activists lengthy prison terms.
Yet, as Father Anton points out, being Catholic in a communist country involves suffering – plenty of it.
“[In Vietnam and China] Catholics face the same suppression: churches are demolished, priests and pastors get arrested, literary works smear Catholics,” he says.
As a politically active Catholic, Father Anton is far from alone. While Catholics make up just 7 per cent of Vietnam’s population, they play an outsize role in the nation’s underground dissident movement.
Their numbers include some of the country’s most recognisable activists, including the imprisoned environmentalist blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as Mother Mushroom, and Nguyen Van Dai, the founder of the Brotherhood for Democracy movement who went into exile in Germany in June after being convicted of sedition.
And it is not only Catholic Christians who have a reputation for protesting, but their Protestant brethren, too.
Le Dinh Luong, a pro-democracy activist and Protestant Christian from Nghe An province, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and five years of house arrest on Thursday for attempting to “overthrow the people’s administration” for, among other charges, inciting demonstrations that followed the 2016 chemical spill at the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant.
Catholics played a prominent part in those protests, which called for greater compensation for fishermen affected by the spill, and retaliatory attacks against them have been common, according to Luong’s daughter-in-law, Nguyen Thi Xoan, who blames government agents for a string of attacks on Catholic places of worship.
“They infiltrate the churches, demolish statues of God and the Virgin Mary, they insult the Catholics by destroying what is sacred to us,” she says.
In June, Catholics also took part in protests against a planned law on special economic zones that many Vietnamese feared would give China a territorial foothold in their country.
The demonstrations, deemed illegal, were ultimately suppressed by police – but the law has since been shelved.
The discontentment stemmed over a provision that would have, under certain circumstances, allowed foreign firms to take out 99-year leases within the special economic zones. But for many in Vietnam the 99-year provision sounded uncomfortably like Britain’s lease on its former colony Hong Kong, and while the law did not specifically mention China, it was inferred that its large neighbour to the north would take advantage of the special economic zones.
Further fuelling the fire was Vietnam’s deeply embedded anti-Chinese sentiment. In a country where every city has streets named after ancient warriors canonised as heroes for resisting Chinese expansion, fears of Beijing’s regional ambitions run deep, and Catholics are no exception.
Indeed, Vietnam’s Catholic dissidents hold a particular disdain for China, where laws surrounding the practice of religion are far more constrictive.
“Catholics know the communists are godless and they do things for their own benefit rather than the people’s interest,” says Nguyen Thi Minh Nguyet, 36, from Ho Chi Minh City suburb, who was among the thousands who took to the streets in June.
Her fellow protester, Nguyen Ngoc, 36, puts it in starker terms: “Jesus Christ said you must witness the truth. Commies hate the truth.”
“Almost [all] Vietnamese hate China communists, but I don’t hate the Chinese, I sympathise with them,” Ngoc, adds. “I know that the true Catholic priests in China are trying so much to survive with commies.”
Their attitudes appear to be at odds with the official line that relations are cordial between the church and Vietnam’s Communist Party.
Unlike in China, where the only legal Catholic association rejects the authority of the Vatican, the Vietnamese government allows the church to be in full communion with the Holy See. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s Law on Belief and Religion, passed in 2016 by the National Assembly, guarantees the right of the people to practise faiths recognised by the government, provided the religious organisations report their activities to the government.
Even so, the single party state is suspicious of any alternative power structures, says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“What the rulers in Hanoi don’t like is any organised movement with the backing of an organisation with the resources and ability to mobilise people,” he says. “The Catholic Church in Vietnam has both of those things.” ■