There are an estimated 6 million to 10 million Catholics in Vietnam (making up 6.8 percent to 10 percent of the population), making Vietnam home to the second biggest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines. Vietnamese Catholics owe their existence to French missionaries, who began their work in the 17th century. Since 1975 bishops have been appointed by Hanoi not the Vatican. The Vatican is not pleased about this. It has elevated an exiled Vietnamese bishop to the position of cardinal.

Roman Catholicism is the oldest form of Christianity in Vietnam. It was introduced to Vietnam in the 17th century by the Portuguese. Traditionally there has been some friction between Buddhists and Catholics. Since World War II Catholicism has been a faith more associated with the South than with North. Many of Catholics in Ho Chi Minh City comes from families that fled the north in the 1950s. At present the most densely-populated Catholic areas are Bui Chu-Phat Diem in the northern province of Ninh Binh and Ho Nai-Bien Hoa in Dong Nai Province to the South. Over 10 percent of the population in these places are Catholic. Catholics also make about 10 percent of the nine million people or so people in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). There are a large number of Catholics in Ho Chi Minh City. Catholics there say they attends church regularly and don’t suffer any discrimination.

The Vietnamese and Cuban models for the Catholic Church gave the church more autonomy than under other Communist regimes before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spokesmen of the Church haves pointed out that the theology of the Church is universal and therefore no differences exist insofar as mass, etc., are involved. They also observe that cultural patterns not in conflict with Church law or theology may be practiced by adherents of the faith. Thus the ancestor shelf of veneration with minor physical modifications and emphasis is found in the home of nearly every Vietnamese except for the animistic tribespeople and the Protestants. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Vietnam's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the climate for worship has improved in recent years. But the state still tightly controls religious hierarchies. Since market reforms in the 1980s, there has been an easing of religious prohibitions and more people have been returning to church.

LaVan, a small village in Vietnam is the only place in Southeast where an apparition of the Virgin Mary has be reported. More than 200,000 people showed to observe the 200th anniversery of the sighting. The Virgin Mary's appearance was recorded at La Vang in 1798, a time when Catholics were being persecuted by the then Vietnamese emperor. Taking refuge in forests, the Catholics were visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary holding a child in her arms. Thousands of Catholics have gone to a church to touch the toes of an icon said to drive away the troubles of those who touch it.

There was reputed to be a Catholic connection between U.S. President John Kennedy and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem See Ngo Dinh Diem, History

Early History of Roman Catholicism in Vietnam

Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam in the 16th Century: 1533: The Edict of Le-Trang-Ton that forbade the introduction of Catholicism into the province of Nam Dinh, (now in North Vietnam) . 1550: The landing of Gaspar de Santa Cruz, a Roman Catholic Priest, at Con-Cao in the province of Ha-Tien, South Vietnam, after sailing from Malacca. 1580: While South Vietnam was still largely peopled by the Chams and Khmers, Franciscans came from the Philippines and settled in Central Vietnam. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam in the early 17th Century: 1615: Establishment by the Society of Jesus of a mission in Central Vietnam, staffed by Jesuits from Japan. 1624: Arrival in Central Vietnam of the Jesuit priest, Alexandre de Rhodes, the author of the current Vietnamese alphabet and an important figure in Vietnamese history. 1625: King Sai-Vuong issued an edict against missionaries. 1627: Alexandre de Rhodes moved to Tonkin (in North Vietnam); his mission seemed extremely successful. 1629: Trinh-Trang, King of Tonkin, forbade conversion to Christianity upon pain of death; and in 1630 expelled Alexandre de Rhodes, who returned to Central Vietnam. 1645: Some Roman Catholics are martyred and Alexandre de Rhodes is expelled from Cochinchina. 1646: With the encouragement and support of a Catholic Viceroy of Kwangsi (China), Roman Catholicism is defended in Tonkin; a number of conversions take place. 1650: Alexandre de Rhodes urges the Society of Congregation for Propagation of the Faith to send Bishops to Vietnam in order to establish churches and train Vietnamese clergy. ++

Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam in the late 17th Century: 1651: The first printing of an Vietnamese-Latin catechism in Rome using the Vietnamese alphabet devised by Alexander de Rhodes. 1658: Roman Catholic adherents through baptism estimated at better than one quarter of a million: with the exception of two missionaries, all missionaries expelled from Tonkin. 1659: The beginning of the Apostolic Vicariates for Cochinchina and Tonkin with Lambert de la Motte for the first and Pallu for the second location. 1665: At least forty Roman Catholic martyrs, and a new exile for missionaries. 1666: Beginning of a floating seminary for clergy by vicar-general Monsignor Pallu. 1668: Ordained the first two Tonkin Vietnamese priests and the first two Cochin-china Vietnamese priests with ordination being performed in what is now Thailand. 1670: Organization of Synod in Tonkin. Nine local priests were available for this event which took place on 14 February. 1672: Organization of the first synod in Cochin-china on February 12. Also seems to have been some disagreement requiring settlement between French missionaries and Portuguese Christians in area. 1674 and 1675: The first attempt by the Roman Catholic Church of a mission to the Montagnards or Tribespeople. 1676: The arrival of the Spanish Dominicans in Tonkin. 1678: Oath of obedience to Apostolic Vicars imposed by Pope on all Roman Catholic missionaries. 1680: Reorganization of Church in Vietnam placed Monsignor Lambert de la Motte in charge of entire area. 1689: Society of Jesus successful in achieving abrogation of oath for their order. 1698: Both Tonkin and Cochinchina have some persecution of Catholics but growth of Church continues. ++

Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam in the 18th Century: 1712: Apostolic Vicar deported. 1719: 700 churches destroyed with martyrdom of Vietnamese priests and 2 foreign Jesuits. 1737: Additional Jesuits lose their heads in the capital of Tonkin. 1745: Spanish Dominicans also martyred. 1773: As persecution continues and spreads, Jesuits suppressed and disappear from mission. 1778: Due to help rendered the future Emperor Gia-Long, and agreement signed, the French landed at Tourane (now Danang) and Paulo-Condor. 1798: Martyrdom of additional Vietnamese priests. ++

Later History of Roman Catholicism in Vietnam

Despite the Roman Catholic Church's rejection of ancestor worship, a cornerstone of the Confucian cultural tradition, Roman Catholicism established a solid position in Vietnamese society under French rule. The French encouraged its propagation to balance Buddhism and to serve as a vehicle for the further dissemination of Western culture. [Source: Library of Congress]

Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam in the 19th Century: 1802: The unification of Vietnam under the Emperor Gia-Long gave Roman Catholics comparative freedom and the Church had about 300,000 people on its record. 1825: Emperor Minh-Mang forbade missionaries to enter Vietnam, which caused French intervention that created indignation and open hostility. 1833: On January 6 Minh-Mang issued his decree of persecution. 1840: When persecution slackened at this time, the Church claimed 420,000 members in Vietnam. 1851: A new edict by Tur-Duc against the Roman Catholics resulted in more than 90,000 of the laity being killed as well as more than one hundred priests. 1856: New edict of persecution by Tur-Duc. 1862: Treaty between French and Vietnamese Tur-Duc provided some liberty for Vietnamese Roman Catholics. 1868-1888: Severe persecution again was the order of the time. 1883: French regime provided cessation of persecution of Roman Catholics. 1890: The Church claimed over 70,000 Roman Catholic converts for year. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam in the 20th Century: 1933: The first Vietnamese national consecrated as a Bishop. 1947: First recorded martyrdom of Roman Catholics by Viet Minh partisans. 1954: Partition of Vietnam; with 650,000 Roman Catholics immigrating to South Vietnam from north of 17th Parallel; there are about twice as many Roman Catholics in South Vietnam as in North Vietnam. 1959: The Hanoi Apostolic Delegation closed by order of government. 1960: The Church established a hierarchy for all of Vietnam with three archdioceses (Hanoi, Hue’, and Saigon) and three additional dioceses with Apostolic Delegate located in Saigon. 1963: Established the diocese of Danang. 1965: Division of Saigon Diocese into the dioceses of Saigon, Xuan-Loc, and Phuc-'Cuong. 1966: With ordination of another bishop, the Church in South Vietnam had 20 Bishops, 5 French and 15 Vietnamese, while in North Vietnam there were 13 Vietnamese Bishops for a total of 33 Bishops in the two Vietnams. NOTE: More information could be added to each date and the intervening years, but this review covers the major Church events to give the setting and understanding of various historical forces so that the current struggles can be better understood and evaluated. ++

Catholicism in Vietnam Since World War II

After the mid-1950s, Catholicism declined in the North, where the communists regarded it as a reactionary force opposed to national liberation and social progress. In the South, by contrast, Catholicism expanded under the presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem, who promoted it as an important bulwark against North Vietnam. Under Diem, himself a devout Catholic, Roman Catholics enjoyed an advantage over nonCatholics in commerce, the professions, education, and the government. This caused growing Buddhist discontent that contributed to the eventual collapse of the Diem regime and the ultimate rise to power of the military. Roman Catholics in reunified Vietnam numbered about 3.0 million in 1984, of whom nearly 1 million resided in the North and the remainder in the South. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1955 approximately 600,000 Catholics remained in the North after an estimated 650,000 had fled to the South. That year the Liaison Committee of Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics was set up in the North by the communist regime in an attempt to win over those Catholics who had chosen to remain (but were slower than non-Catholics to embrace the regime) and to "reintegrate" them into northern society. The church was allowed to retain its link with the Vatican, although all foreign priests had either fled south or been expelled, and normal church activities were permitted to continue, albeit in the shadow of a campaign of harassment. The appearance of normalcy was misleading, however. The church was stripped of its traditional autonomy in running schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Its traditional right to own property was abolished, and priests and nuns were required to devote part of their time to productive labor in agriculture. Nevertheless, officials claimed that Catholics had complete freedom of worship as long as they did not question the principle of collective socialism, spurn manual labor, or jeopardize the internal and external security of the state. *

Catholic Militias in the French Indochina War

Catholics have tended to live in their own separate communities (notably in Phat Diem) and were thought to be more pro-French than many groups in Vietnam. Two of the most notable experiences with catholic militias were those of Bentre province in Cochinchina and the Phat Diem bishoprics of northern Annam. In Bentre province, where about 400,000 Catholics lived, a Eurasian French army officer, Captain Leroy, organized the first "Catholic brigades" on An Hoa island in 1947 with spectacular results. These "brigades" of 60 men later became the building blocks of the Unités Mobiles de Défense de la Chrétienté (UMDB - Mobile Christian Defense Units) a province-wide regional force supplemented by Bao An (Peace Guardians) local self-defense groups. Given control over all the UMDC in 1949, Leroy was put in command of the whole province the following year when all French forces were withdrawn from the area. Within a year, the whole of Bentre province had been completely pacified ! [Source: indochine54 ==]

Yet, the foundations of his success were to cause his downfall for his method was simple : "the Viet Minh promises much and I deliver it". Accordingly, his first step had been to reduce the rates tenant farmers paid to their landlords while taxing the landowners for the upkeep of his militia and the funding of public works such as schools, markets and bridges. Furthermore, local affairs were dealt with by councils which were nominated at first and later elected by the population. Obviously, quite a few feathers were ruffled in Saigon where landowners (both secular and religious) did not appreciate the prospect of winning the war against the Viet Minh by applying its program. By late 1951, his 80 "brigades" of 3240 well-armed, motivated and experienced men and were far more effective than the mere 5840 of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. ==

The case of the Phat Diem and Bui Chu bishoprics was quite different for in the late nineteenth century, a Vietnamese priest, Tran Van Luc, had obtained from the King of Annam the title of "baron" of the Tham Hoa to Phat Diem area which was populated by a large number of Catholics (800,000 by 1945). His successors, Le Huu Tu (bishop of Phat Diem) and Pham Ngoc Chi (bishop of Bui Chu), thus became autonomous "prince-bishops" wielding both temporal and spiritual power, raising taxes and militias in their own lands. In each village, dominated by fortified church, the local priest would take care of his flock's salvation, administer public affairs and lead the self-defense force. In 1945, the Catholic community of Annam, still bearing the burden of having favored the French conquest in the 19th century, had no wish to be seen as the agents of the returning French and initially cooperated with Viet Minh governement. Le Huu Tu, a prickly nationalist who had his own arsenals and even a personal radio station to stay in contact with the Vatican, even became one of Ho Chi Minh's "advisors" (along with Emperor Bao Dai) and General de Lattre would later say of him that "his crosier is made of the wood which is used for truncheons". However, rising Viet Minh influence in his land soon alienated Le Huu Tu who increased the size of the self-defense groups and raised mobile regional forces which he led in person, quickly imitated by Pham Ngoc Chi. Thus the bishoprics became a neutral zone, both anti-French and anti-Communist, acting as outlets for contraband to and from the Viet Minh-controlled areas to the mutual financial benefit of both parties. ==

This arrangement worked until October 1949 when the Viet Minh massed seven battalions of regulars to occupy Phat Diem and Bui Chu. This led Le Huu Tu to ask discreetly for French assistance. In order to protect the bishop's nationalist credentials however, some mock fighting was arranged between the French forces tasked with occupying the bishoprics and the Catholic militias. The area stayed relatively autonomous though as French forces withdrew rapidly and left the bishops in charge of the area's defense after providing weapons for two Autonomous Mobile Groups, nominally part of the Vietnamese Armed Forces but under local control. This allowed the bishops kept all their future options open by recognising the Bao Dai government while ignoring its authority and maintaining political and commercial relations with the Viet Minh. Still, they had, if unwillingly, become allies of the French. Catholic autonomy would last another two years. ==

In late 1951, after Catholic troops had put up only token resistance against the Viet Minh's offensive on the Delta, General de Lattre had Phat Diem and Bui Chu permanently occupied by Franco-Vietnamese troops and the bishops stripped of their administrative functions. In 1954, cooperation with French forces, reprisals from the Viet Minh and intense propaganda would prompt a massive flight of the northern Annam Catholics to Cochinchina and their bishop would have no choice but to follow their flock. In the main, the Catholic comunity kept to its tradition of withdrawing unto itself while taking care of its own security and its hierarchy remained uncommitted as long as possible. Although the Catholic League under Ngo Dinh Diem (later premier of South Vietnam) initially co-operated with Bao Dai, it too would quickly distance itself from the puppet-leader. ==

Roman Catholic Church in South Vietnam in the 1960s

The Roman Catholic Church stated that, as of the end of 1965, 10.5 percent (approximately 1,600,000) of all the South Vietnamese Republic's present population were members of the church. The Roman Catholic Dioceses of South Vietnam including Archdioceses of Hue’ and Saigon. The diocese of Saigon was sub-divided in 1965 into three dioceses with these being Saigon, Xuan-loc, and Phu-Cuong. In 1966 the Roman Catholic Church of South Vietnam had two Archbishops with administrative offices at Saigon and Hue, and twenty Bishops who oversaw the pastoral work of 1,771 priests and the work of 4,026 nuns of the various orders. Across the 17th Parallel, the Roman Catholic Church has an Archbishop and an archdiocese at Hanoi, some nine dioceses and thirteen Bishops. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The comparatively strong educational program of the Church tended to place many of its graduates near the top of economic, cultural, political and academic areas of Vietnamese life except where the dynamics of religious forces gravitated against them. This created tension of varying degrees throughout South Vietnam. As governmental educational institutions developed and assumed a molding influence, the effect of Church-oriented education declined.

The Church's figures of 101,010 catechists, 189,930 baptisms and 19,293 marriages for 1963 is considered about normal according to one Vietnamese Roman Catholic Bishop. Yet the course of the war and political strife undoubtedly has an effect upon the Church even as it does upon the individual Vietnamese throughout Vietnam. While the death rate or apostasy figures have not been included, they are involved in computation of Church growth according to hierarchy spokesmen.

Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam Since Reunification in 1975

In November 1977, the Vietnam Courier reported that the church in the North had changed from "opposition to acceptance and participation," but that the transformation had been difficult for Catholics. In the same month, the government unveiled a decree on religion that reaffirmed the constitution's position on religious freedom, but made it unequivocally clear that such freedom was conditional and depended on the compatibility of church activities with such higher imperatives as patriotism and socialism. The new decree not only prescribed the duties and obligations required of the clergy by the state but also imposed state control over the conduct of religious services, education, training, investitures, appointments, travels, and transfers. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Applicable to all religious communities in the North and South, the new law clearly introduced a period of more active state intervention in church affairs. The regime apparently acted out of concern that the church in the North, despite having coexisted with socialism for twenty-three years, was not progressive enough to lead in the socialist transformation of the Catholic community in the South. The Vietnam Courier suggested this link between the northern and southern situations in November 1977, after noting that the northern Catholic church would have to shoulder the additional task of helping to reintegrate Vietnam's entire Catholic population into the national community. *

Catholics in the South in 1975 officially numbered about 1.9 million, including 15 bishops, 3,000 regular and diocesan priests, 1,200 brothers, and 6,000 nuns. Four-hundred priests and lay brothers and 56,000 lay Catholics were estimated already to have fled the country in anticipation of the communist victory. At the time of the imposition of communist rule, the South had 870 parishes in 15 dioceses; Ho Chi Minh City alone had a half million Catholics, who were served by 600 priests and 4,000 lay brothers and nuns. The North's less than 1 million Catholics were served by about 3,500 churches attended by nearly 400 priests, 10 bishops, and 2 archbishops. *

The government claimed that after April 1975 the religious activities of Roman Catholics were quickly stabilized, major services were held, and many cathedrals and churches that had been damaged or destroyed in the war were rebuilt. The regime claimed further that there was no religious persecution, or if there was persecution, that it was directed at the activities of "reactionary forces" bent on taking advantage of "the backwardness of a number of the faithful . . . ." Nevertheless, the authorities acted to isolate and to neutralize hard-core opposition to party policy and to persuade less strongly opposed factions to join a party-controlled "renovation and reconciliation" movement. A considerable number of Northern and Southern Roman Catholics, however, remained opposed to communist authority. *

In 1980 the Unified Bishops' Council of Vietnam was established to enlist the aid of "patriotic" bishops in persuading recalcitrant elements of the Catholic community to cooperate with the regime. Three years later, in November 1983, a Committee for Solidarity of Patriotic Catholics was created to unite all Catholics and channel their energy into the building of socialism. This committee, which replaced the Liaison Committee of Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics, was formed at a time when the regime's surveillance of the Catholic community had been stepped up, reportedly due to the suspicion that some Catholics were involved in antistate activities. The regime's growing concern was further reflected in the establishment in March 1985 of a Religious Affairs Committee to coordinate and supervise religious organizations more effectively. Hanoi's increasing involvement in church affairs reportedly produced new strains in its relations with the Vatican. In 1987 it nevertheless appeared critical to Vietnam's leaders to convey to the public the impression that the Roman Catholic Church was active in the affairs of the nation and that church members were significant contributors to the socialist cause.

Roman Catholic Dioceses in Vietnam

Roman Catholic Dioceses in North Vietnam in 1963 (Population, Roman Catholics, Percentage): A) Hanoi: 2,500,000, 155,000, 6.0; B) Lang-son: 350,000, 2,500, 7.0; C) Hai-phong: 1,500,000, 54,617, 3.6; D) Bac-ninh: 2,000,000, 35,423; E) Hung-hoa: 1,920,000, 70,181, 4.1; F) Thai-Binh: 1,660,891, 88,652, 5.3; G) Bui-chu: 895,000, 165,000, 18.0; H) Phat-diem: 450,000, 58,900, 13.0; I) Thanh-hoa: 1,500,000, 47,000, 3.0; K) Vinh: 1,890,000, 156,195, 8.2; L) Grand totals: 10 dioceses, 14,665,891, 833,468, 5.6. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967, gleaned from Roman Catholic sources, publications and interviews with authorities of the Roman Catholic Church in Vietnam ++]

Roman Catholic Dioceses in South Vietnam in the 1963 (Population, Roman Catholics, Percentage): A) Hue: 831,914, 100,225, 12.0; B) Qui-nhon: 1,755,123, 116,882, 6.6; C) Nha-trang: 699,950, 101,610, 14.5; D) Kontum: 407,085, 105,830, 26.0; E) Danang: 1,029,007, 86,505, 8.4; F) Saigon; G) Phu cuong: 3,371,227, 567,455, 16.8; H) Xuan loc; I) Vinh-long: 1,633,754, 90,644, 5.5; J) Can-tho: 1,410,000, 56,201, 3.9; K) Dalat: 254,669, 77,324, 30.3; L) My-tho: 1,538,409, 58,377, 3.8; M) Long-xuyen: 1,252,705, 93,793, 7.5. ++

Grand totals for 14 dioceses in South Vietnam (Population, Roman Catholics, Percentage): 14,183,844, 1,454,842, 10.2; Totals for both Vietnams, 28,849,735, 2,288,310, 7.6. ++

Churches, Priests and Population of Roman Catholics in Selected Provinces ( Population, Roman Catholics, percent of population, bishops, priests, monasteries, convents, large churches, small churches): A) Hanoi: 2,500,000, 155,000, 6 percent, 2, 53, 1, 13, 112, 478; B) Lang-son: 350,000, 2,500, .7, 1, 4, -, -, 11, 14; C) Hai-phong: 1,500,000, 54,617, 3.7, 1, 8, -, -, 61, 316; D) Bac-nin: 2,000,000, 35,423, 1.7, 1, 6, 1, 24, 48, 236; E) Hung hoa: 1,920,000, 70,181, 4.1, 1, 34, -, 34, 23, 356; F) Thai-binh: 1,660,890, 88,652, 5.3, 1, 13, -, 26, 14, 536; G) Bui-chu: 895,000, 165,000, 18., 1, 30, 1, 90, 117, 432; H) Phat-diem: 450,000, 58,900, 13., 2, 24, 7, 34, 61, 282; I) Than hoa: 1,500,000, 47,000, 3., 1, 27, -, 50, 44, 176; J) Vinh: 1,890,000, 156,195, 8.2, 2, 124, -, 64?, 135, 650; Total: 14,665,890, 833,468, 5.6, 13, 323, 10, 335, 626, 3,476. ++

Catholic Revival in Vietnam

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported: "Catholic worship is flourishing in Vietnam, a sign that the Communist Party's repression of religion is easing. As Vietnam's leaders push for faster economic growth, they are finding that a swifter flow of money requires and creates more openness and less political control over people's private matters. Amen to that. After decades of restricting religious activity and imprisoning people for their beliefs, even a modest improvement is welcome and overdue. Denying people the basic decency of choosing how they worship has been a hallmark of communist regimes everywhere. In Vietnam, change is coming with the arrival of market mechanisms and the desire for more of them. Its economy grew 8 percent last year, and its leaders want to join the World Trade Organization, which requires obtaining support from countries that care about religious freedom. [Source: Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2006 ]

In recent months, Vietnam's leaders have taken steps to ease restrictions on Catholicism. A special envoy from Rome made the first visit by a senior official from the Vatican since 1954 and presided over the ordination of 57 priests at a ceremony in Hanoi. Catholic organizations report swelling attendance at Mass all over Vietnam. The exact number of Catholics in Vietnam is unknown; estimates range from 5 million to 9 million — in a nation of 83 million. In theory, Vietnam allows freedom of religion. In practice, communist authorities are highly suspicious of any organization they do not control. The legacy of French colonial rule, and the Vatican's support for South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, only made Hanoi more mistrustful of Catholics. Human rights organizations have documented numerous cases of religious activists in Vietnam being forced to recant and sometimes being tortured.

Hanoi has been particularly tough on Montagnard Christians — evangelicals who have demanded a return of ancestral lands in the nation's central highlands. When Vietnam's prime minister, Phan Van Khai, visited Washington last summer to talk about WTO accession, he met strong demands to ease religious persecution. Khai returned home to oversee the release of political prisoners and to issue a decree banning forced recantations of faith. Westerners are sometimes perplexed by why people in Asia would flock to a religion with a salvation narrative set in the Middle East. And Buddhism remains dominant in Asia. Yet spiritual matters follow unpredictable paths, and common decency requires that people be allowed to choose any faith.

In August, 1999, Reuters reported: " More than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics marked the end of year-long events commemorating the 200th anniversary of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, participants. They said the dusty central Vietnam town of La Vang was packed with pilgrims and priests during three days of Masses and elaborate ceremonies that kicked off last Friday. The opening celebrations at La Vang 12 months ago were the biggest legal Catholic festival held in communist Vietnam, and also attracted more than 100,000 devotees. [Source: Reuters - August 16, 1999]

Vatican and Vietnam

The Vatican and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations. Currently the Holy See has to negotiate with the Hanoi government for the nomination of bishops in Vietnam and very often the government refuses to approve candidates whom it does not deem in its favor. Seminarians are required to obtain Government permission before seeking an admission into the seminary. New seminarians could be admitted only every two years. The bishops do not have the freedom to appoint or transfer priests in the parishes of their choice in the diocese. The church always required to take government permission to hold any church-related functions. Many assets of the Church, such as lands, convents, schools, hospitals and institutions have been confiscated by the government for many years now and returned as yet. [Source: Vatican Radio, January 25, 2007 }={]

In 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Vietnam. In 2007, the Vietnamese premier meets Pope Benedict XVI. In January 2007, Vatican Radio reported: "Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met Pope Benedict XVI in the highest-level encounter between both sides, that would boost the Vatican’s hopes of establishing diplomatic ties with the communist government after decades of tension. The meeting with Premier was part of Pope Benedict's policy of improving international relations, including with Asian nations. The audience was the latest sign of improving relations after decades of tension, particularly over Hanoi's insistence on having the final say in most church appointments. }={

In January 2013, Benedict XVI received the Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong. AsiaNews reported: "A statement from the Holy See speaks of "cordial discussions" and "the hope that some pending situations may be resolved and that the existing fruitful cooperation may be strengthened." Asia News reported: "Another, important step towards the "normalization" of relations between the Holy See and Vietnam." has occurred. " This is how today's visit with to Benedict XVI by the Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Nguyên Phu Trong, is being read. The man, who is the real center of power in the country, arrived in the Vatican at a time when, in Vietnam, there are few tensions between the Church and the political authorities, the latest being the heavy prison sentences handed out to 13 Catholics and the destruction of the Carmelite convent in Hanoi. [Source: AsiaNews, January 22, 2013 \//]

"The meeting, came after more than 20 visits carried out since 1973 to Vietnam by Vatican delegations at various levels, which opened the possibility for the Holy See to appoint a "papal representative", although non-resident, after the interruption of diplomatic relations following the fall of Saigon in 1975.The appointment of the Pope's representative - Msgr. Leopoldo Girelli - was accompanied by the possibility of regularizing the situation of the 26 dioceses of the country. After decades of hardship and vetoes, since 2008, the Holy See has appointed seven bishops and the bishops have ordained hundreds of priests, steps which had previously been fraught with difficulties. And Msgr. Girelli was able to visit all 26 dioceses in the country, meeting thousands of priests and hundreds of thousands of faithful. Since February 2009, there has been a joint Vietnam-Vatican working group to study the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations. \// said, smiling wide. "This is the concept of heritage I will send to the future, to the children."

New Vietnamese Cardinal Approved in 2003

In 2003, the Vietnamese priest Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man was appointed cardinal by the Vatican and approved by the communist government. In December of that year, Reuters reported: "Thousands of Vietnamese Catholics Tuesday celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving in Vietnam's largest city with the newest cardinal appointed by the Vatican. Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, 69, made his hometown debut wearing the red cap of his new appointment to a capacity crowd of more than 1,500 at the French colonial-era Notre Dame cathedral that was filled with cheers and applause. Man, appointed by Pope John Paul in late September 2002, joins one other Vietnamese cardinal, 84-year-old Pham Dinh Tung, who lives in retirement in the capital city, Hanoi. Episcopal appointments in Vietnam are usually approved by the government beforehand from a list presented by the Vatican. [Source: Reuters, December 9, 2003 \^/]

"Hanoi's nod for the elevation of Man is a sign of its warming ties with the Vatican despite a lack of diplomatic relations. Wearing a red cap and tunic, Man was handed a floral garland before entering the cathedral for the two-hour service amid the chiming of church bells and thunderous applause. "The cardinal position which I have undertaken is the joy of the people of God and of the Vietnam nation," Man told the Mass in Vietnamese. "I wish to send to all members of my family thanks," Man said to the service that was relayed on loudspeakers to those outside. \^/

"The ceremony took place at the same venue where more than five years ago Man was installed as archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City's archdiocese. The last time a cardinal was inaugurated in Vietnam was in 1994. In 2002, Vietnamese Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan died in Rome after living for years in exile. The 74-year-old cleric, imprisoned for 13 years in his homeland after the 1975 communist takeover of the south, had been considered a possible future pope. \^/

Catholics and Vietnamese Government Battle Over Land

Nga Pham of the BBC News wrote: "The Vietnamese government is often embroiled in complex disputes over land rights. But there is one particular row that is currently making the headlines — pitting the government against the country's strong Catholic Church, and now the Buddhist community as well. For the more than a month, thousands of Catholics gathered outside the building that served as the Vatican ambassador's residence in Hanoi during the 1950s. Braving the coldest winter for 40 years, they held vigils and prayers in one of the most visible gatherings in decades. They had one request - that the site be returned to the Catholic Church. The last Apostolic delegate was expelled by the Communists in 1959 and, since then, the residence has been used by the local Communist People's Committee for various non-religious purposes, such as weddings, motorbike parking and a gymnasium. Vietnam's Buddhist community has now entered the standoff as well. The Buddhist Sangha recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung saying that it, too, wanted ownership. [Source: Nga Pham, BBC News, February 26, 2008\\]

"The case has highlighted the complexity of land issues in Vietnam, especially where religions are involved. It has also caused considerable alarm to the authorities. They demanded that the Catholic protesters stop their vigil, and some were prosecuted for "abusing religion to cause public disorder". In the end, the crowds only dispersed when the Archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, announced that the government had promised to give back the land. But the issue has still not been resolved - and the land has yet to be returned. Before the Catholics could show their discontent again, an official letter signed by the Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the official Buddhist Church, was sent to the prime minister. The letter said the disputed land was in fact the location of an ancient pagoda - one of the most important heritage sites of Vietnamese Buddhism - which was occupied by the French and given to the Catholic Church in the 19th Century. It asked the government to "consider the Buddhist Sangha one of the main parties to consult before making any decision" regarding the site. The letter has sparked an angry reaction from the Catholic community. \\

"Online forums such as the VietCatholic website have been swamped with articles and messages saying that only the Catholic Church has rights to the land that they believe was "given to the Church by history". Some followers of the outlawed Vietnam Unified Buddhist Church also criticised the state-approved Buddhist Sangha's claim, which they feared would only widen the division between the two religions. Religious issues have always been considered "sensitive" in this communist country. But tricky as it is, the claim by the Buddhists could, in reality, help make the government's task simpler. "With both the Catholic and Buddhist Churches vying for the land, the government can now take the religious nuance off the issue, and treat it as a pure land issue," said one leading cultural expert. "It could come down to basic documentation." Even straight land disputes, though, are not easy to solve. \\

"Real estate prices in Vietnam have rocketed during the past decade. In central Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, commercial space can sell for as high as in some of the most expensive cities in the world. The disputed former Vatican ambassador's residence, covering an area of one hectare, is no doubt of great financial value. "We have come to recognise that the Hanoi Diocese does indeed need a premise for their activities," said Nguyen Duc Thinh. But he admitted that, like many land disputes, this one would take time to resolve. \\

Vietnamese-Style Catholic Church in the United States

Phuong Ly wrote in the Washington Post, "Even though most people would have to stand, the Rev. Peter Long gathered about 300 newly arrived Vietnamese each evening in the tiny chapel. They wore donated clothes and the despair of homesickness. But during Mass, the Vietnamese Catholics tried to forget that they had fled their war-torn country, left behind loved ones and were housed temporarily in barracks at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. Long, 62, who had escaped Vietnam in a fishing boat carrying just a small suitcase filled with vestments and books, prayed with the congregants. Keep believing in God, he told them. Faith will help you make a new life, he said. Now, 25 years later, Long is preparing to dedicate a spacious $5.5 million building for his growing Vietnamese parish in Silver Spring. Blessed by Cardinal James A. Hickey, spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Washington, Our Lady of Vietnam Roman Catholic Church is a yellow concrete structure with a curved, red, pagoda-style roof. It is the first Roman Catholic church in the United States built in a Vietnamese design, according to Vietnamese Catholic officials. To the congregation of 670 families, the 20,000-square-foot church on New Hampshire Avenue represents how far they have come since their flight from Vietnam and how they have blended their cultural heritage with their Catholic faith. "This is a miracle," Long said. [Source: Phuong Ly, Washington Post, October 19, 2000 /=]

"In 1975, the year that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, "the community was very small," he said. "The conditions in this country were very difficult for us at first. . . . I think God loves the Vietnamese people. This church was a dream, and now it's a reality." Soon after Long left the Pennsylvania refugee camp, he began serving about 120 Vietnamese Catholic families in the Washington area. Like many immigrant congregations, the Vietnamese rented space from another church and worshiped in the afternoons. Long, whose devout Catholic family sent him to a seminary when he was 10, had served two parishes in Vietnam. He yearned for his Vietnamese American congregation to have its own building and identity. In 1987, Long bought a ranch house in Silver Spring and conducted baptisms, weddings and Sunday services from his living room. Six years later, the fast-growing congregation built a one-story church on the four-acre property and later razed the ranch house. That church became the basement in which the congregation now meets while the new structure rises above them. /=\

"Because Vietnamese honor simplicity and amiability, the lines of the roofs are gentle curves, rather than the sharp lines of Chinese structures. The 12 roof points are for the 12 apostles. The building's three tiers symbolize the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. They also stand for the values of Vietnamese philosophy: happiness, benevolence and longevity. A small golden egg on the roof represents the one that, according to folklore, cracked open and gave birth to the 100 clans of the Vietnamese nation. A cross crowns the top." /=\

Protestantism in Vietnam

There are much fewer Protestants in Vietnam than Catholics. Most Vietnamese Protestants live in the Central Highlands. Many are members of ethnic minorities. The number of Protestants living in Vietnam is estimated at 400,000. Protestants, numbered between 100,000 and 200,000 in the early 1980s, and were found mostly among the Montagnard communities inhabiting the South's central highlands. Because of their alleged close association with American missionaries of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Protestants were reported to have suffered more than Catholics after 1975. *

The Protestant Church is represented by several denominations within South Vietnam. These include the French Reform Church, Anglican-Episcopalian, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Baptists, Church of Christ, Worldwide Evangelization Crusade, and Seventh-day Adventists. Other Protestant churches are represented in the various social services and/or welfare agencies, but do not seem to have formal church or missionary organizations. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

The Evangelical Church of Vietnam (Christian and Missionary Alliance): is the oldest and largest Protestant Church in Vietnam. Pastor Robert Jaffray began the Protestant missionary effort in Vietnam in 1911, and since that time, the Church has grown to more than a hundred thousand adherents. Known in Vietnamese as Tin Lanh, "Good News", the Church has an indigenous organization and a strong missionary drive which expands its efforts. In the 1960s, the 572 member staff of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (Christian and Missionary Alliance) operated 341 churches, 14 elementary schools, 1 high school, 2 hospitals, 1 leprosarium, 3 seminaries or training schools for pastors and 1 printing house for the publishing of religious literature. While serving the 41,733 baptised members of this faith (baptism does not occur until the individual is mature enough to make this choice for himself), the Church continues to stress the responsibility which each adherent has for his fellow Vietnamese. ++

The Christian and Missionary Alliance is based in Ho Chi Minh City. From its first efforts in 1911 by pioneer Protestant missionary Robert A. Jaffray onward, determined efforts have succeeded in creating an indigenous church with its own administrators and staff. In the 1960s it employed 441 persons composed of 346 ethnic Vietnamese and 95 Montagnards. The total of 441 was made up of 296 pastors, 23 teachers, 20 nurses, 18 other medical workers and 84 other church employees. In support of these Vietnamese citizens who are full-time church workers, the Christian Missionary and Alliance in Vietnam had 131 overseas missionaries laboring under the direction of Pastor Thomas Grady Mangham, Jr. These include 54 clergymen, 1 doctor, 8 nurses, 16 teachers and 52 unsalaried missionary wives. In a number of different locations and among various tribal peoples, the missionaries have been the first to succeed in transforming the spoken tribal language into written form with grammar, etc. This has enabled the reading of Scripture in the language of the individual and also opened the avenue of thought in other areas of human endeavor. The close cooperation between missionaries and the Summer Institute of Linguistics provides opportunities for the more rapid advancement of information and the development of rapport with the various ethnic groupings of South Vietnam. ++

The Vietnam Baptist Mission began their efforts in Vietnam in 1959, and had 300 baptised members and approximately 400 adherents in the 1960s. Its staff was composed of 15 ethnic Vietnamese and 27 overseas missionaries at that time. Four Vietnamese were pastors as were 14 of the overseas missionaries, while the other 11 Vietnamese are engaged in other church functions. A pastor with the church expressed the Vietnam Baptist Mission's goals in the following words on 14 July 1966: "Baptists carne late to Vietnam. Protestants had been in Vietnam about 48 years prior to the coming of Baptists. Our work on a comparative basis, therefore is small. We are now located in four major cities with plans to reach out into others. Our work is primarily church-centered. Our efforts are primarily in the direction of winning people to Christ, baptising them, teaching them, and leading them into active Church life....out of these will grow many of the expressions of Christian Life and service such as schools, orphanages, etc. The Vietnam Baptist Mission (the organization of missionaries) does have hopes for medical work in the near future." ++

Vietnam’s Seventh-day Adventist Mission had 15 churches, 1 large elementary school (presently being converted into both elementary and high school), 1 nursing school for the training of fully qualified nurses, 1 hospital (with a new larger one in the plans stage), 1 publishing plant for the publication of religious literature in Vietnamese and 2 welfare centers for various social services provided to the community regardless of religious affiliation in the 1960s. With the exception of nurses, the training of other professional church employees was undertaken largely in the Philippines or other countries in Southeast Asia where the church has established schools for this purpose already. The Seventh-day Adventist Mission began its activities in Vietnam in 1930. The mission staff in the 1960s was composed of 209 people working within Vietnam—a comparatively large group of workers for a baptised membership of 1300— composed of 11 Western missionaries and 198 indigenous workers. The Western missionaries includes one pastor, 2 doctors, 1 nurse, 2 business administrators and 3 unsalaried wives. The indigenous component included 12 pastors, 16 teachers, 15 nurses, 85 other medical workers, and some 70 miscellaneous employees, many of whom are salesmen of religious literature. ++

The Protestant churches represented in active Vietnamese endeavor are conservative. In spite of theological and organizational differences, the personnel of the various churches have cooperative rapport with the practice of friendliness and concern for each other. These conservative Churches practice baptism and membership based upon the believer's profession of faith, so if children and non-baptised adherents are included the number of 150,000 or more is not unrealistic. The insistence of these churches on doctrines of belief so different from many of the Vietnamese cultural patterns may keep the percentage of Protestantism comparatively small. However, highly motivated by the sense of personal responsibility, the Protestants can make valid contributions to the community and the Vietnamese nation. ++

Repression of Christians in Vietnam

According to a human rights report, In Vietnam, "Christians who act independently of the officially approved temple and church are subject to arrests and harassment." Large gatherings are video taped by informers. Catholicism, which was spread in Vietnam by the French, have traditionally been viewed with suspicion because of its ties with the colonial power. Some Catholic priests, including imprisoned Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, have also angered Hanoi by criticizing state controls on church operations.

The government seems particularly worried about evangelical Christian groups, which are not large but are growing very quickly and have taken hold among ethnic minorities. A secret government report uncovered by Freedom House. It was titled "The Problem of the Enemy Exploiting Religion" and blames the problem on "U.S. imperialists.’

In April 2004, hundreds of ethnic minority Christians were forced to undergo re-education sessions. Baptist pastor Than Van Truong was released from two years in a lock-down psychiatric ward in 2006 after local authorities deemed him "delusional" for handing them Bibles. In January 2006, police in Ha Giang province broke up Christian service when they caught more than 20 people “illegally singing.” In the early 2010s the Vietnamese government handed down heavy prison sentences to 13 Catholics and destroyed a Carmelite convent in Hanoi.

Protestant pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was arrested in January 2011 on unknown charges. Three Catholic Ha Mon Montagnard activists—Blei, Phoi, and Dinh Pset—were arrested in March. . Also in April Protestant pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was arrested and charged with "undermining national unity." At least 15 Catholics affiliated with Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, including bloggers Le Van Son and Ta Phong Tan, were arrested in July, August, and September. In July prominent religious and democracy campaigner Father Nguyen Van Ly was sent back to prison after approximately 16 months of medical parole/house arrest. Father Ly suffers from partial paralysis resulting from strokes previously suffered in prison and there continue to be serious concerns for his health. [Source: Human Rights Watch World Report 2012]

Shawn W Crispin wrote in the Asia Times, “- Brandishing nightsticks and electric cattle prods, about 50 Vietnamese police and security officials in May 2006 stormed and demolished a Mennonite church in Vietnam's central Binh Khanh area. Several members of the congregation were injured, and police arrested the pastor, Reverend Nguyen Hong Quang, and 10 others who resisted.Quang is no stranger to state-sponsored religious persecution. He recently served 15 months of a three-year sentence for "interfering" with officials during a similar violent incident against his church in March 2004. While in detention, local police frequently raided his damaged house of worship and harassed his family, often late at night. [Source: Shawn W Crispin, Asia Times, July 6, 2006]

Priest Sentenced to Eight Years in Prison on Counter-Revolutionary Charges

In March 2007, the Vietnam News reported: "The People's Court of the central province of Thua Thien-Hue on March 30 sentenced Nguyen Van Ly to eight years in prison for "spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" in accordance with the Penal Code. At an open trial, the court also ordered Ly be placed under house arrest for five years after release. Among Ly's accomplices, Nguyen Phong was sentenced to six years in prison and three years under house arrest and Nguyen Binh Thanh, five years in prison and two years under house arrest. Two other co-conspirators received suspended sentences. These sentences were approved by the people attending the court, who said that it served the criminals right. [Source: Vietnam News Agency, March 31, 2007 ==]

"Ly was born in Vinh Linh in the central province of Quang Tri on May 15, 1946. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1974, Ly departed from an authentic religious course in 1975 and began to take part in activities against the people's administration. Treated leniently by the State after repeatedly being jailed for inciting religious followers to oppose the administration and undermine the policy on national unity, Ly still showed no repentance. He continued to take overtly reactionary activities against the administration. He converted his house into a place from which he made, stored, and distributed documents against the State. ==

"More seriously, Ly continued to contact and conspire with reactionary forces inside and outside the country to oppose the State, a behaviour that runs counter to the interest of the people and the nation and seriously violates Vietnamese laws. On April 8, 2006, Ly founded a group 8406 (also called bloc 8406) and joined other accomplices to edit and compile numerous documents to spread distorted and slanderous information on the Vietnamese State . During the investigation process, the police confiscated at Ly's home more than 200 kg of papers and documents relating to the founding and inauguration of reactionary organizations to subvert the Vietnamese Party and State. ==

Vietnam Denies Four Churches Pulled down in South

In August 1999, the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said that armed officials in southern Binh Phuoc province had destroyed four churches and threatened to pull down any remaining places of Christian worship. The charity group said in a statement obtained by Reuters: "The authorities have promised to destroy all places of worship." Separate religious sources in Vietnam confirmed that three churches had been pulled down in the province, which borders Cambodia. [Source: Reuters, August 19, 1999 ]

Le Sy Vuong Ha, deputy director of Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry Press Department, vehemently rejected the CSW report. "This information released by Christian Solidarity Worldwide... is completely untrue and ill-intended,'' Ha told a news briefing. Some Western governments have privately expressed concern at what they say appears to be Hanoi's attempt to clamp down on Protestantism, especially in Vietnam's remote north. Ha said all legal religious sites were protected by law. However, he said some people in Binh Phuoc had built homes without permission, and local officials had forced the residents to clear the land when they refused to pull down the dwellings voluntarily.

The CSW said one of the destroyed churches, which was used by an ethnic group in the region, had been built without official permission. It did not say if the other three had been built without permission -- which is required to erect any building in Vietnam -- but added that local authorities had knocked back requests to repair places of worship. "Numerous requests to repair or rebuild churches, which by now are old and crumbling, have been ignored or denied,'' the CSW statement said.

Father Nguyen Van Ly

Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest and one of the founders of a movement for democracy in Vietnam, was imprisoned for nine years. One of his "crimes" was sending a letter to the U.S. Congress urging members to reject a trade agreement until Vietnam allowed more religious freedom. He was released with serious health condition but then arrested again in 2011.

AsiaNews reported: "Father Nguyen Van Ly, the priest among the founding members of "Bloc 8406", a movement that demands the end of the single party in Vietnam has been arrested again. Imprisoned in 2007 with a sentence of eight years, he was released in March last year because of his serious health condition. As reported by Father Phan Van Loi, the police went to Nha Chung, the office of Bishop of Hue, where the priest had to live, and arrested him. The police agents had brought an ambulance, as Father Van Ly had suffered several strokes in recent years that left him partially paralyzed. [Source: Asia News, July 26, 2011 +]

"His precarious health, along with criticism of Hanoi by human rights groups, the U.S. governments and the European Union, had prompted authorities to suspend the prison term for a year, forcing him under house arrest at the bishop’s residence. Since his house arrest, Father Ly had begun to send written denouncements of serious human rights violations of the Communist Party and the Vietnamese government. Father Phan Van Loi says that "before the police arrested Father Vn Ly they asked Father Vien Le Quang, head of the bishop’s office, to sign a statement. The priest wrote that 'Father Van Ly is still sick. He has not recovered from his illness'. The police at first objected, but eventually accepted the document written by Father Le Quang Vien. Within minutes they arrested Father Ly ". +

In March 2011, the police had met with Father Ly to ask him to write an application to request not to have to go back to prison, but the request was decisively rejected. It is known that Father Ly was again taken to the prison in Ha Nam, Kim Bang district, Ha Nam province. +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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