Sunday, November 19, 2006

Religious Restrictions Ease in Vietnam

By Ben Stocking, The Associated Press
Saturday, November 18, 2006; 3:43 PM

HANOI, Vietnam -- They file into St. Anthony's Catholic Church to pray and take communion in the early morning darkness, before the city rumbles with motorbikes and commerce.
Crossing themselves and chanting liturgy, they look at ease _ even though their homeland, Vietnam, shunned Catholics until not long ago and has come under sustained international criticism for violations of religious freedom.

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President Bush plans to pray at a church much like this one during his visit to Hanoi for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this weekend. The church stop is intended as a show of support for Vietnam's faithful, who live under a communist government that tightly controls religious institutions.

While restrictions remain, harassment has eased enough that the United States decided this week to remove Vietnam from a list of the world's worst violators of religious freedom. For members of Vietnam's six officially sanctioned faiths _ including Catholicism _ the stigma that communist leaders once attached to their expressions of faith had long before all but disappeared.

For several years, temples and churches across the country have been packed with the faithful, with even communist officials now taking part in religious ceremonies.

At St. Anthony's, the four Sunday Masses draw 1,500 to 2,000 people each. Worshippers overflow the pews and spill onto the sidewalk, where they sit on plastic chairs and listen to Mass on loudspeakers.

On weekdays at 6 a.m., several hundred of the most devout of the church's 7,500 members show up, parking bicycles and motorbikes in a courtyard filled with statues of the Virgin Mary.

Nguyen Van Thuan has been coming to St. Anthony's since it was built in 1934, but was afraid to come from the mid-1950s until the late 1980s, when the government began implementing reform policies known as doi moi and acknowledged that religion was a "tradition of the people."
"Only people who were really devoted dared to come here at that time," said the 84-year-old Thuan, dressed in a derby, gray suit and tie. "I feel very comfortable here now."

Nguyen Anh Tuan, 49, who grew up in a home behind the church, said he was turned down for a government job in the 1970s because he identified himself as a Catholic.

"Ten years ago, people discriminated against me for coming here, but not anymore," Tuan said. "The atmosphere is very open now, not just for Catholics but for everyone."

If things have opened up for ordinary Catholics, the Vietnamese government continues to place restrictions on the church hierarchy, limiting the number of priests it can train, churches it can build or seminaries it can open.

All of the six officially approved faiths are overseen by the Communist Party. Buddhism is dominant, followed by Catholicism.

Some Catholic and Protestant denominations, however, have refused to accept communist control.

Criticism of Vietnam's record on religious freedom usually involves members of such unapproved churches, including the independent Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
While the U.S. decided that Vietnam's treatment of such groups has improved in the past year, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, issued a report this week saying that Vietnam's record on religious freedom remains poor.

St. Anthony's 50-year-old priest, Father Joseph Maria Vu Thanh Canh, refuses to discuss the politics of religion in Vietnam; he will only discuss his own parish. "We have a fulfilling religious life," he said.

GOP's loss improves presidential chances of McCain

By Peter Brown
The San Diego Union Tribune
November 19, 2006

The big winner Election Day wasn't even on the ballot. As screwy as it might seem, the Democratic takeover makes it much more likely Republican John McCain will be the next president of the United States.

That popping noise you might have heard early Wednesday wasn't just Democratic champagne corks; it was the starter's pistol kicking off the 2008 White House campaign.

For McCain, the perfect political storm – Iraq, corruption and the Foley scandal – that handed Congress to the Democrats was far from an ill wind.

The results mean the Arizona senator's maverick ways that irk some of his own party's most conservative members will become a political asset if he wins the Republican presidential nomination. It is his past ability to appeal across party lines that makes him the candidate whom Democrats fear, and have not so privately hoped would be unable to win the GOP nomination.

They acknowledge that as the Republican presidential nominee, McCain would be competitive in many states – Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and perhaps even California, Pennsylvania and Illinois – that Democrats count as their base. And that's not to mention the ultimate battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida.

The election returns provide incentive for Republicans to quickly put aside their intramural differences and unite for 2008, and seem to help McCain's standing as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. It likely will mean money and endorsements will begin to move more quickly to him than would be the case had the 2006 election continued the status quo.

The election has removed George Allen as McCain's rival for the 2008 nomination. When the year began, Virginia Sen. Allen was the one around who party conservatives were expected to rally.

Mitt Romney is likely to inherit that mantle, but the governor of Massachusetts, a Mormon, has a formidable task winning the nomination of a Republican Party firmly anchored in the evangelical Sun Belt.

Of course there is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who runs as well as McCain in trial heats against Democrats. But the smart money says that when GOP primary voters focus on Giuliani's support for abortion rights, gay rights, gun control and a messy personal life, his stock will fall sharply.

There is nothing like defeat to make political partisans put aside their differences and focus on what they have in common. GOP conservatives who had the luxury of trying to make sure their nominee was pure enough may be much less picky now.

Simply put, the prospect of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or Barack Obama in the White House come 2008, with the Congress already in Democratic hands, is likely to be a motivating factor for Republicans.

The Republicans are a hierarchical party. For the last half-century, their nominee has been the pre-primary front-runner, usually the vice president or a big-state governor.

But Vice President Dick Cheney isn't running; neither is the president's brother Jeb, the governor of Florida. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is ineligible because he is not a native-born citizen. All this has left the party without a clear 2008 front-runner.

But the congressional and gubernatorial losses will force the party to focus immediately on 2008, and electability will become a much more immediate concern. That will push McCain to the fore.

He has a strong network around the country, and despite the residual bad feelings from the 2000 GOP primary fight between McCain and George W. Bush, many of the president's men have been signaling their support for the Arizonan in 2008.

During the past congressional campaign, McCain was the politician most in demand by GOP candidates. It was no accident that on the day before the election, Charlie Crist, the new governor of Florida, passed up the opportunity to campaign with the president in order to appear with McCain.

Of course, nothing is certain, and McCain's age and health – he would be 72 when inaugurated – will remain unknown factors. Yet, for at least one Republican, 2006 was a very good year.

Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at This commentary first appeared on the realclearpolitics Web site.

Viet Nam: Internet repression creates climate of fear


News Service No: 271 22 October 2006

Viet Nam: Internet repression creates climate of fear

A new report released today by Amnesty International reveals a climate of fear in Viet Nam, with people afraid to post information online and Internet café owners forced to inform on their customers.

Individuals are harassed, detained and imprisoned for expressing their peaceful political views online, with fear of prosecution fuelling widespread self-censorship.But the report also reveals a growing network of activists and campaigners who are defying government controls and using the Internet to discuss human rights, as well as a fledgling democracy movement that is growing online.

The report comes one week before a UN meeting to discuss the future of the Internet – the Internet Governance Forum in Athens – where governments, companies and NGOs will discuss freedom of expression online and other issues. An Amnesty International delegation will deliver a petition signed by over 42,000 supporters of its campaign, calling for an end to Internet repression.

“People in Viet Nam can be thrown in jail for the click of a mouse. The authorities have created a climate of fear, with online informers keeping track of web users. Those who stand up for free speech are publicly harassed and persecuted," said Amnesty International.

“But a growing number of brave activists are defying Internet repression and using the Internet to fight for human rights. And the global nature of the Internet means that people all over the world can help call for greater online freedoms in Viet Nam – and support our campaign to free Vietnamese cyber-dissidents.

“The Vietnamese authorities must stop trying to stifle free speech online, and release the web users that have been unfairly imprisoned.”

Amnesty International is asking people to go to, where they can support its campaign against Internet repression and email the Vietnamese authorities, demanding the release of people imprisoned for expressing their peaceful political beliefs online.

The report details the Vietnamese authorities’ tightening of control over the Internet in recent years. Internet Service Providers are required to inform on web users; Internet café owners are required to monitor and inform on customers; and web users themselves are required to inform on sites that oppose the state.

Laws ban web users from spreading information that causes “harm to national security or social order”.

Filtering and blocking of websites is also on the increase, according to the report.

And while the Vietnamese authorities claim that filtering is for the protection of web users from pornography, a recent OpenNet Initiative report found little filtering of such material. Instead, blocked sites are those referring to known dissidents or mentioning democracy and human rights.

Amnesty International’s report highlights the case of Nguyen Vu Binh, a 37-year-old journalist who was arrested in September 2002 for passing information through the Internet to overseas Vietnamese groups.

At his trial in December 2003 he was charged with "spying" under Article 80 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, plus three years’ house arrest on release. He is currently detained at Ba Sao prison camp in Nam Ha province in northern Viet Nam.It also features Truong Quoc Huy, aged 25. He was first arrested in October 2005 with two other young people after chatting on a democracy and human rights website, held incommunicado for nine months then released. On 18 August 2006 he was rearrested in an Internet cafe in Ho Chi Minh City where he had logged on to a chatroom. His whereabouts remain unknown and no charges have been made public.

Amnesty International believes that both men are prisoners of conscience and calls for their inclusion in the release of prisoners which the authorities have announced will take place in late October.

In the case of Cong Thanh Do, a US citizen arrested in August and released 21 September 2006, the Vietnamese authorities claimed that he planned a terrorist plot to destroy the US consulate.

However, the US ambassador reportedly said that the US had seen no evidence to support the claim and that they hoped for his release. Cong Thanh Do was a member of the People’s Democratic Party, which advocates for political change human rights, and had posted numerous articles online about human rights in Viet Nam.

Amnesty International believes that his arrest was aimed solely at punishing Cong Thanh Do for expressing his political views.

The report is part of Amnesty International’s work on Internet repression linked to its campaign, which launched in May 2006. The campaign highlights the rise of Internet censorship and the cases of individual prisoners of conscience, imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their beliefs online. It enables web users to take action to combat Internet repression: emailing governments, supporting Amnesty’s online petition, and spreading the campaign by publishing fragments of censored material from Amnesty’s online database.

For the full report, Viet Nam: A tightening net - web-based repression and censorship, please see: