FATHER THADEUS NGUYEN VAN LY
Nguyen Van Ly, a Vietnamese Roman Catholic priest and advocate for
religious freedom, had spent a lifetime attempting to exercise his
right to freedom of expression and freedom of worship.
Father Nguyen Van Ly was ordained as a priest in 1974. He taught
at a seminary in Hue, and served as secretary to the then Bishop
of Hue Monsignor Philippe Nguyen Kim Dien. Father Nguyen Van Ly
distributed copies of Monsignor Dien's statements expressing the
Monsignor’s sadness at the arrest of Buddhist monks. The bishop's
position was publicly denounced in Công Giao va Dân
Tôc, the official newspaper of the Southern Catholic Liaison
Committee. A year later, on 14 August 1982, Father Nguyen Van Ly,
by this time parish priest of Doc So, in the Hue diocese, accompanied
by one other priest and a number of Christian followers, attempted
to make the pilgrimage to La Vang. Police blocked the road and forced
the pilgrims to return to Hue.
On 20 November 1982, Father Nguyen Van Ly was arraigned before
the Binh Tri Thien provincial People's Tribunal, charged with leading
an illegal pilgrimage to La Vang. He was convicted, expelled from
the Doc So parish and ordered to retire to his native village. Father
Nguyen Van Ly refused to do so, insisting he would only leave his
parish on the orders of his superior, Monsignor Dien, the Archbishop
of Hue. Religious people of both Catholic and Buddhist faiths gathered
at the Doc So presbytery and frustrated the attempts of the police
to arrest Father Nguyen Van Ly, until 18 May 1983, when around 200
policemen came in the morning and arrested the priest by force.
He was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment on 13 December1983, and
was released in July 1992.
After he was released from prison in July 1992, he was appointed
priest at the Nguyen Bieu church, in Thuy Bieu village, Hue Diocese,
and continued his ministry there, but did not remain silent on issues
that concerned him. In November 1994, he published a ''10 Point
Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese''.
This statement criticised the state's appropriation of church property,
the lack of places in seminaries for men to train for the priesthood,
and the interference of the state in church teachings.
On 13 February 2001, the United States Commission on International
Religious Freedom held a meeting on the issue of freedom of religion
in Viet Nam, and Father Nguyen Van Ly was invited to address the
hearing. He was unable to attend in person, because he could not
leave Viet Nam, but he did submit written testimony which was presented
to the Commission. Father Ly's testimony was highly critical of
the situation in Viet Nam, and stated that ''in the realm of religion,
the control of the communist government has stripped all churches
of their independence and freedom''. In addition to many pages of
highly critical analysis, Father Nguyen Van Ly also advocated that
the US Congress should not ratify the long-negotiated US-Viet Nam
Bilateral Trade Agreement, because of the lack of respect for human
rights and freedom of religion in Viet Nam. Father Ly's testimony
was published on the Internet, making it widely available internationally,
but unlikely to be seen by the majority of Vietnamese people. The
official Vietnamese media quickly criticized the hearing itself,
and much of what was said by the various participants.
Father Nguyen Van Ly was arrested early in the morning on 17 May
2001, in his church as he prepared to celebrate mass. A large number
of policemen, possibly up to 600, surrounded and then stormed An
Truyen church. After the arrest, Father Ly was denied access to
legal counsel. On October 19, 2001, the Thua Thien Hue Provincial
People's Court convicted Father Ly after a two-hour, closed trial.
Father Ly was sentenced to two years in prison for violating the
terms of his administrative detention, thirteen years in prison
for "damaging the Government's unity policy," and five
years of administrative probation upon release from prison. He was
never been given access to an attorney.
Vietnamese human rights organizations reported that Father Ly is
being held in a small, isolated cell at a hard labor camp in the
Nam Ha province. Furthermore, the Government denied Father Ly contact
with other prisoners and the Government prohibited guards from speaking
with him. The Government severely limited time provided to Father
Ly outside his cell, generally denied him the use of pen and paper,
except for allowing a monthly correspondence, and refused to give
him items brought to him in prison, including Christian books and
some food items.
On March 31, 2004, the House International Relations Committee unanimously
passed H.Con.Res. 378. On May 11, 2004, the resolution, by now co-sponsored
by 107 Members of Congress, was debated in the House of Representatives
and passed the Congress on a roll call vote of 424-1. On November
18, 2004, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington,
wrote a letter to the President of Vietnam urging Father Ly's release.
On January 31, 2005, the Government of Vietnam announced it would
release Father Ly from prison as part of a general amnesty to mark
Tet, the Lunar New Year and he walked free a short time later.