Universe Column for February 16th
By David Alton
In a Vietnamese prison a Catholic priest is serving a fifteen year prison sentence. He has been jailed by the communist government for speaking out in favour of religious liberty and social change. In Hanoi, during a meeting with Vietnamese government officials I asked for clemency and his early release.
As the Vietnamese Prime Minister now reconsiders the case we need widespread international pressure. As you read his story perhaps you would consider writing a letter on his behalf.
Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly (pronounced Lee) is aged 56, and was arrested in May 2001 and after a trial without a defence lawyer or public audience. He was sentenced to 15 years in solitary confinement followed by five years on probation.
According to the official Vietnam News Agency he 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.,’ .
For more than 30 years Father Van Ly has peacefully campaigned for improved religious freedom in Vietnam. In a written testimony submitted to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001, he called on the Communist Government to make significant improvements to religious freedom. He called on officials 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 had urged the Congress to postpone the ratification of a bilateral trade agreement while religious persecution persisted.
In solitary confinement in Nam Ha province, Fr. Van Ly is barred from speaking to the guards who bring him his food and drink twice a day. During a rare visit from relatives, he said : “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.”
During a visit to Hanoi with US Congressman, Joseph Pitts on behalf of the Jubilee Campaign, I raised Fr. Van Ly’s case with Le Quang Vinh, head of the Vietnamese Government Committee on Religion. Quang Vinh denies that religious persecution occurs in Vietnam and says that people like Father 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.”
When I asked him where Fr. Van Ly bought his guns and weapons he replied that “they had sticks and knives, not guns.” The reality is that a group of about 35 frightened parishioners had gathered for sanctuary in his church. The church was surrounded by 600 armed security officers (Quang Vinh later contacted us to say the number was 200) and as Father Van Ly prepared to say Mass he was arrested. This report was confirmed by Dang Cong Dieu, the Chairman of the People’s Committee in Phy An.
Quang Vinh told us that we could not visit Fr. Van Ly but he did promise to place our plea for clemency before the Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai. Vietnam is open to international representations. You can help Fr. Van Ly by writing to the Vietnamese Ambassador, H.E. Vuong Thua Phong, 12 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD at the Embassy in London and to the Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, at the Vietnamese Government Offices in Hanoi.