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
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
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
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
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. …