Cablegate: Northern Catholics Rely On Ties South, Abroad

Published: Fri 12 Mar 2004 01:37 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
120137Z Mar 04
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A: 02 Hanoi 2152 B. 02 Hanoi 1556
C: Hanoi 608 D. HCMC 255
This is a joint Embassy/ConGen cable.
1. (SBU) Summary: The Catholic Church remains strong in the
northern provinces of Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh, the historic
heartland of Catholicism in Vietnam. With government
acceptance, the Church is expanding the number of clergy,
renovating colonial-era churches, and planning new
charitable programs. Frustrations remain, however, at
restrictions on the numbers of students sent to seminary.
Much of the financial underwriting for the Church in the
region comes from Vietnamese-Americans who trace their roots
to the area. While ties with Catholics who fled south
during Vietnam's partition in 1954 appear to be fading over
time, traces remain. End Summary.
2. (U) During a joint Embassy/ConGen reporting visit,
poloffs met on February 23 and 24 with Catholic Bishops
Nguyen Van Yen of Phat Diem diocese (which includes most of
Ninh Binh province) and Hoang Van Tiem of Bui Chu diocese
(most of Nam Dinh province), as well as priests and leaders
of local parish committees and representatives of the
Committees on Religious Affairs (CRA) for the two provinces.
(Ref a recounts a similar visit by Pol/C in 2002.)
Catholicism Thriving
3. (U) According to official statistics, in Nam Dinh
province 21% of the population -- or 412,000 people -- is
Catholic. The province has 71 priests (28 of them recently
appointed), and 635 nuns in 5 different convents. (Note:
Technically, the nuns are not officially recognized as
religious workers or under the official supervision of the
provincial or central Committees on Religious Affairs.
There are no officially sanctioned training or study
programs for female Catholics. End note) Fifty male
students from Nam Dinh are currently enrolled at the Hanoi
Catholic seminary (ref b), while another six are studying in
Paris and Rome. Ninh Binh province has 144,000 Catholics in
65 parishes, served by 25 officially recognized priests and
another 14 who have finished seminary but are completing an
apprenticeship before being assigned to their own parishes.
4. (U) In Quan Lieu Church in Nam Dinh -- a parish founded
in 1792 -- there are 4500 faithful, and the local priest
conducts mass daily as well as weekly Bible study classes
and marriage preparation classes. In Ninh Binh city, the
Catholic parish is building a huge new church, with seating
for 4000, which should give it ample space to expand from
the current membership of 1500.
Expanding into Charitable Work
5. (U) Officials from Nam Dinh's Committee on Religion
noted that the Catholic Church had been operating a center
for the disabled since 1930, entirely run and funded by
Church funds. Bishop Tiem of Bui Chu diocese recalled that
when he had attempted several years ago to found a house for
delinquent children, local authorities blocked the project.
Noting that the Church had opened technical schools in
southern Vietnam, he said in the near future he hoped to
found a training school for the poor, and predicted he would
receive permission. In Nam Dinh's Quan Phuong parish, the
local priest said the Church is building a vocational
training center for the blind, although it plans to
"present" the center to local authorities after completion.
In both provinces, the churches operate a number of
kindergartens, according to various sources. Religious NGOs
from other countries also have a presence -- a Korean
Christian group built a hospital in Nam Dinh and an American
organization is planning a vocational training center -- but
are strictly prohibited from proselytizing, officials
Never Enough Priests
6. (U) Shortages of priests continue to frustrate the
church, Catholics noted. The seven churches in Ninh Binh's
Mieu Giap parish share a single priest with two other
parishes, and most of the churches are only open for mass on
their patron saints' days and the Tet lunar holiday. In Nam
Dinh's Quan Phuong parish, the resident priest ministers to
9200 faithful in three parishes, with only the help of an as-
yet unordained seminary graduate. Both bishops expressed
frustrations about continued GVN limitations on the number
of seminary students. Bishop Yen of Phat Diem noted that,
in 1954 there had been 155 priests in this diocese, but that
by 1988 the number had dropped to ten, six of whom were too
ill or old to remain active. Bishop Tiem noted that Bui Chu
diocese currently had 63 priests, compared to 150 priests in
1954. He pointed out, however, that there were 22
seminarians from his diocese currently studying in Hanoi,
all of whom would return after finishing their studies. He
would like to send even more -- he has 120 candidates for
the seven places he is allocated in each entering class --
but is unable to obtain permission. The bishop also
explained that a previous bishop had "secretly" ordained 20
priests without government approval, "common" in the past
when GVN authorities were unlikely to approve ordinations
directly. These 20 were now attending a special two-year
program in the seminary in Nha Trang (ref c), after which
the GVN agreed to recognize their positions.
North-South Relations
7. (U) In 1954, hundreds of thousands of Catholics fled
from north to south, in some case transplanting entire
communities and building new churches named for those they
had left behind. Echoes of that migration are found today
in the thriving Catholic communities of Ho Chi Minh City,
Dong Nai (which today likely contains the highest proportion
of Catholics in the country), Lam Dong, Vung Tau, and Can
Tho -- communities that are far more prosperous today than
their northern counterparts. Only with reunification in
1975 did communication between the northern and southern
communities begin to resume (albeit hampered by the
political situation and restrictions on travel of the period
before "doi moi").
8. (U) Asked to describe the connections that still exist,
the parish priest of Quan Phung told poloffs that he still
travels to HCMC every year to visit "sister communities"
established by former parishioners. He cited an association
of believers from the south whose members return to the
north for a meeting in his province every five years. The
church council in Mieu Giap parish is now constructing a
church guesthouse to be used by visitors returning to their
"Que Huong" (hometown). On the governmental side, members
of the Ninh Binh's CRA said they also travel to HCMC and
other southern provinces on a fairly regular basis to meet
with their counterparts. HCMC's CRA confirmed and welcomed
these contacts and noted that ties between the northern and
southern Catholic communities were "important."
9. (U) Vietnamese Catholic communities overseas are also
helpful supporters, according to various contacts.
According to Bishop Yen, his diocese would be "unable to
support itself" without contributions from abroad. He noted
that there were many Phat Diem Diocese associations outside
the province (the majority of them in the US), which sent
financial contributions to help rebuild and maintain
churches. At the front of the Phat Diem Cathedral is a
plaque listing approximately 100 donors (and their
nationalities) who had contributed to its recent
reconstruction completed in 2000/2001; all but two were
10. (SBU) Contrasts between the north and south remain
striking. Southern Catholic churches, at least in those
areas with a high concentration of Catholics, are generally
vibrant centers of community life, with often large or even
huge facilities, and usually in good physical condition.
Many were only built after 1954, and a large number have
been rebuilt and/or expanded in the over the past decade as
Vietnam's relations with the outside world -- in particular
the US -- have become normalized. The churches in the north
often appear to be museum relics. While much reconstruction
has taken place -- notably the spectacular Phat Diem
Cathedral -- many others appear to be little-used and
sometimes decaying reminders of the colonial era. The
shortage of priests also appears to be more of a problem in
the north, perhaps because of financial limitations of
various dioceses to sponsor students (as well as due to
government restrictions on numbers). Southern Catholic
seminarians appear to have far greater access to
scholarships to study overseas, certainly for studies in the
U.S. The southern churches also tend to have greater
financial resources that enable them to undertake more
charitable activities, which allow them to assist the
disadvantaged in their own communities but may limit their
abilities simultaneously to provide much funding to their
northern relatives. Nonetheless, the renewed and growing
ties between northern and southern Catholic churches, as
well as between Vietnamese Catholic congregations in Vietnam
and overseas, are welcome signs of progress toward
reconciliation, a process that is likely to continue to
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