Government bans Catholic church’s maritime map exhibit

(National Catholic Reporter) – An exhibit of historic maps detailing Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty of waters off the coast of Vietnam, recently disputed by China, planned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City for June 19, was forcibly canceled by government authorities, even as the same maps had been previously allowed to be displayed in Hanoi.

The archdiocese had planned to organize the four-day exhibit at the newly built headquarters building of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam. Archbishop Paul Bui Van Doc (Bùi Văn Ðọc) of the archdiocese, also head of the Bishops’ Conference, was expected to open the event.

Rev. Ignatius Ho Van Xuan (Hồ Văn Xuân), Vicar General of the archdiocese, issued a statement June 18 on the archdiocese website: “Archbishop Paul Bui Van Doc decided to cancel the exhibit of maps claiming our national sovereignty over Spratly and Paracel Archipelagos on the East Sea [South China Sea].”

Rev. Xuan did not disclose any reason for why the exhibit was canceled, but he expressed wishes that local priests, religious and laity would sympathize with the archbishop.

However, informed church sources told NCR on June 18 the Committee for Religious Affairs in Ho Chi Minh City had sent Archbishop Doc a letter saying that it did “not allow the archdiocese to open the exhibit.”

These same sources said church had refused to ask for government permission for the exhibition. The reason cited: “Organizing the exhibit is the internal work of the local church, and the exhibit aims to help local Catholics to master the national sovereignty over the two disputed archipelagos and raise public awareness of patriotism after China illegally deployed its big oil rig last month within Vietnam’s waters.”

Many Vietnamese have reacted angrily to China’s move, and anti-China riots and attacks on foreign factories last month left several factories burnt. Different governments’ reports put casualties between two and 21 deaths.

Vietnam and China have also taken the territory dispute to the United Nations and have submitted dossiers on their claims to United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.

Local sources said they consider it “unusual that Catholics, expressing their patriotism, are requested to ask for government permission.”

They said the banned exhibit shows 90 copies of ancient maps drawn by foreigners and Vietnamese, dating from 1482 to 1989. The copies were from the 3,000-map collection put together by noted Catholic history researcher, Nguyen Dinh Dau (Nguyễn Đình Đầu), who has previously been honored by the Hanoi government for his historical research. The exhibit had been displayed at the city’s library June 3 to 8; the maps have also been shown at the city’s Center for Young People.

A senior observer said on condition of anonymity that “the local church obeys the laws and the government, but never seeks government permission for its internal activities.”

“The real reason behind the ban on the church exhibit is that the Communist Party of Vietnam fears to displease its neighboring Communist Party of China,” the observer continued. This conclusion stems from the fact that China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi met with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, June 18.

Photo top:  The same maps previously displayed in Hanoi were banned by the Committee for Religious Affairs in Ho Chi Minh City when the Catholic archdiocese there tried to exhibit them. Photo by Teresa Hoang Yen/NCR.

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