Even during Lent, Catholics imprisoned in communist Vietnam are not allowed to attend Mass or receive Bibles, and priests are not allowed to visit prisoners.
AsiaNews reported that Vietnamese prisoners of conscience, who often are jailed for speaking out for democracy, free speech, or religious rights, suffer from physical and spiritual neglect. Authorities would not give Catholic blogger Maria Tạ Phong Tần a Bible from her relatives, according to AsiaNews. Tần, who is imprisoned for “anti-state propaganda,” is being held in one of the worst prison camps in Vietnam.
Conditions in Vietnamese prisons vary considerably, but little food, manual labor, rampant disease, and cramped solitary confinement are common, according to International Christian Concern’s Ryan Morgan. In 2013, authorities arrested at least 50 Christians, adding to the many pastors and church leaders already imprisoned.
But often, the Vietnamese government will cave to international pressure. Authorities have arrested and beaten Catholic lawyer Lê Quốc Quân multiple times for his political activism. In 2007, they jailed him, but soon released him after pressure from protests in the United States. Authorities put Quân back in prison in 2012 on trumped up charges of tax evasion, according to The Washington Times.
Speaking about the current imprisonment and spiritual neglect of Tần and Quân, Morgan said that “in this case, there seems to be some international attention which we hope will improve their conditions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of prisoners in Vietnam do not get this kind of attention.” Treatment of Christians and churches improved after the U.S. State Department’s religious freedom office designated Vietnam a country of “particular concern” several years ago, but declined again once the country was taken off the list, Morgan said.
The Vietnamese government only recognizes certain churches and must authorize meetings of believers. Still, many Christians in the predominantly Buddhist nation risk arrest by meeting in unregistered home churches. Even authorized churches are monitored and sometimes harassed.
“The Catholic church is one of the allowed churches in Vietnam and the majority of Christians in Vietnam are Catholic,” Morgan said. “The Catholic community in Vietnam is very vocal about human rights.” Because of their willingness to defy the government, the church often faces stringent crackdowns.
Vietnam has a long history of Catholic persecution, including many martyrs between the 17th and 19th centuries. Recently, government persecution drove many to flee Vietnam. Ecumenical News reported that in 2013, hundreds of Catholics fled and sought asylum in Australia.
Morgan hopes the United States will put more pressure on Vietnam and countries like it. Catholic World Report said in February that Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., criticized President Barack Obama for “indifference” on religious freedom because Obama had not appointed a new ambassador for religious freedom to the State Department. Smith is the sponsor of the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which would tie humanitarian aid to improved human rights.