Johnny Blades looks at religious tensions in a city where the penalties for hosting religious gatherings without government permission can be severe, including lengthy stints in prison and “re-education centres"

Wednesday March 3rd 2010 - It’s a quiet Sunday on a dusty backstreet in Vietnam’s ­largest city and Hong Nguyen is scared. As an organiser in one of scores of underground Christian groups operating in Ho Chi Minh City, she has ­reason to be.

The penalties for hosting religious gatherings without government permission can be severe, including lengthy stints in prison and “re-education centres”.

For many of Vietnam’s 8 million Christians, Sundays – once simply a time of celebration and reflection – are now mixed with caution and fear, worshipping in secret.

First came the email, then a text message notifying of the rendezvous. Then members of the congregation slipped into a small warehouse for their clandestine meeting.

“Our parish used to be very happy, praying and singing together,” says Hong. “Now, we hide and are quiet.”

The service must proceed quickly, she says. The tone is hushed and it’s hard not to notice Hong’s eyes darting constantly towards the door.

It was only after Hong had ushered the last member out of the room that she could begin to relax.

The proliferation of underground services in Vietnam follows several years in which government-shaped legislation has purported to increase religious freedoms but – between the fine print – spelled out a warning that no dissent will be tolerated.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia director of advocacy, Sophie Richardson, says Vietnam’s official stance towards religion is problematic.

“Religious freedom is seen as a privilege to be requested from and granted by the government, rather than a fundamental human right,” Richardson says. “The government views many religious groups, ­particularly popular ones that it fears it can’t control, as a challenge to the Communist party’s authority.”

Attaining a licence to register officially as a church is difficult in the mainly Buddhist country. There are around 1,000 ethnic minority Christian congregations in northern ­Vietnam, but also dozens of non-aligned Buddhist groups that have lodged unsuccessful applications. The determining factor is often whether an organisation is perceived to be a threat to the ruling party or representing “hostile foreign forces”.

Richardson says the government in Hanoi uses “restrictive regulations to harass or eradicate certain independent religious groups who practice their faith outside of state-sanctioned institutions”.

The harassment has been linked to the A41 police, a unit within the ministry of public security known as “religious police”. It monitors groups the government considers as religious “extremists”.

Hundreds of people are in prison in Vietnam for their religious beliefs, according to human right’s groups and press reports.

They include over 300 Montagnard Christians, members of the Cao Dai faith, at least five Hoa Hao Buddhists, a Mennonite pastor, and dozens of Catholic parishioners arrested last year for peacefully protesting.

Hanoi recently signed an agreement on religious cooperation with Burma. References were made to working together to “thwart external influences from using religion to destabilise society”, according to an official release, which was run in full by the state-run Vietnam News Agency.

“The agreement is [a] worry for all Buddhist people, a bad sign,” says one follower in Ho Chi Minh City of Hoa Hao Buddhism, who asked not to be identified. Hoa Hao Buddhism is a recognised sect, but one he says is under pressure to affiliate with the government-appointed committees that oversee their religious affairs.

“We must be free to practise without denunciation,” said the follower, who was one of only a few prepared to talk openly about the matter.

Despite such moves, efforts are under way to normalise ties with Rome. Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Minh Triet, met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican before Christmas, the first such visit since 1954, when the communists swept to power in the north.

Both sides are cautiously moving towards reconciliation. Pope Benedict is believed to have asked the Vietnamese government for more opportunities for the country’s Catholic church to become involved in humanitarian, healthcare and educational activities.

Nevertheless, Richardson says, “While there has been some improvement in religious freedom for many Vietnamese citizens who are willing to worship in government-registered institutions, significant abuses remain.”

It was fitting for Hong Nguyen that the Sunday we met was the day of Saint Anthony the Abbott. She sees special significance in the teachings of a man who was the first known ascetic.

“He spoke of the importance of persevering in our faith,” Hong says wearily, “so that’s what we will ­continue to do.”