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 completely 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.
U.S. President George W. 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 visit is intended as a show of support for Vietnam’s faithful, who live under a communist government that places tight controls on 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. But for members of Vietnam’s six officially sanctioned faiths — including Catholicism — the stigma that communist leaders once attached to their expressions of faith had all but disappeared long before.
For several years now, 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 from 1,500 to 2,000 people each, with worshippers overflowing from the pews and spilling out onto the sidewalk, where they sit on plastic chairs and listen to Mass on loudspeakers.
On weekdays at 6 a.m., only several hundred of the most devout of the church’s 7,500 members show up, parking their bicycles and motorbikes in a courtyard filled with statues of the Virgin Mary.
St. Anthony’s older members remember a time when they didn’t want anyone to know they attended Mass. In their post-revolutionary fervor, Vietnam’s leaders frowned on all displays of religious faith.
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 Thuan, 84, 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 by far the most dominant, followed by Catholicism, which claims more adherents in Vietnam than in any other Southeast Asian but the Philippines.
Some Catholic and Protestant denominations, however, have refused to accept communist control and join the government-approved churches.
Criticism of Vietnam’s record on religious freedom usually involves members of such unapproved Protestant “house churches” and 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.
Church members blend Catholicism with Vietnam’s strong traditions of family worship. In her home, for example, Vu Nguyen Lien Huong has hung a statue of the Virgin Mary above her family altar, which is adorned with photographs of the ancestors to whom she prays each day.
Throughout her house are Catholic crosses. “We are very attached to Jesus,” Huong said.