By Simon Montlake Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Last Christmas, the Rev. Peter Phuc fulfilled a lifelong dream: He went to Rome. With nine other priests he spent three weeks visiting churches and museums, though he didn't make an official visit to the Vatican, with which Vietnam has no diplomatic relations.
His eyes sparkle with the memory of his first foreign trip, which speaks to the lighter touch exerted by Vietnam's communist rulers on his faith. In 1980, when he was ordained at a closed-door ceremony, Roman Catholic priests ran the risk of being labeled subversives and sent to labor camps. None were permitted to travel overseas to study.
Today, his 19th-century cathedral is packed with worshippers on Sundays, and Catholic seminaries are expanding. New churches are mushrooming in this corner of northern Vietnam where Catholicism has sunk deep roots. Fr. Phuc is amazed at the rapid growth. "In the past 10 years, almost every year a new church is built. I can't keep track," he says.
Religion is still a sensitive subject in Vietnam. The US accuses it of violating the rights of believers, particularly ethnic minority Christians in rural highlands. Vietnamese officials say they respect religious freedoms and point to recent legislation that bans forced conversions and gives equal protection to all faiths.
"Vietnamese citizens have the freedom to choose their religion. All religions are equal under the law," says Nguyen Thi Bach Thuyet, a member of the Government Committee for Religious Affairs.
Of the six official religions recognized by Vietnam, Catholicism ranks second behind Buddhism. It has between 5 million and 7 million followers, concentrated mostly in the south, and is reportedly becoming more popular among young urban Vietnamese who are enjoying the fruits of the country's rapid economic growth.
Despite a steady thawing in relations, the government continues to keep close tabs on the Catholic Church. It insists on vetting clergy appointments and priesthood candidates, and as recently as 2001 imprisoned a Catholic priest, since released, after he sent written testimony to the US Congress on religious freedom in Vietnam.
Leaders of other faiths remain behind bars, says the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan agency, which designates Vietnam a "country of particular concern." They include the elderly leaders of an outlawed Buddhist sect imprisoned in 2003 and accused of possessing "state secrets," a capital offense.
By contrast, Catholics are enjoying greater freedom in Vietnam. Some say the country's economic liberalization is helping by opening the country to a free flow of ideas and information that is part and parcel of a modernized society. "Integration into the world means opportunities for dialogue with each other, it brings us together," says the Rev. …