Security on Sunday June 17, 2018 was tight in major Vietnam’s cities and provinces, with large presence of police in public areas.

Thousands have been arrested after demonstrations last week in the country where the ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and tolerates little criticism.

During the week the Vietnamese government vowed to punish protesters, branding them as “extremists”. Nguyễn thị Kim Ngân, Vietnam’s National Assembly chairwoman on Friday said the lawmakers condemned “the acts of abusing democracy, distorting the truth, provoking, causing social disorder and greatly affecting the people’s life”. She said in a televised session of the Assembly.

State-run media outlets went even further airing direct, gung-ho threats from police Major-Colonel Trần Anh Huy, who threatened to “blow brains out of skulls” anyone who dare to participate in demonstrations against recently-passed cyber security law.

Despite great fears blanketing the society, tens of thousands of Catholics in Hà Tĩnh and Vinh, central Vietnam, demonstrated peacefully on Sunday. Walking calmly on the streets, despite being filmed by police with menacing gestures, protesters prayed the Rosary holding Vatican flags and signs that said “No leasing land to Chinese communists for even one day” or “Cyber security law kills freedom”.

In another development, Mgr. Michael Hoàng Đức Oanh, emeritus bishop of Kontum Diocese, publishes an open letter dated June 16, 2018, to Trần Đại Quang, Vietnam’s chairman. The prelate condemns Huy’s statement urging all state officials to tone down in order to promote social harmony and respect legitimate rights of citizens.

“The new cyber security law is to fool people, and the bill on special administrative and economic units is to sell out this country to China. On Sunday June 10, when people express their will against the two bills, the government barbarically attacked them instead of listening to them! Later, a mass arrest has been carried out in Bình Thuận and other places! As of now, it’s still going on,” he writes describing what are going on in these days in Vietnam.

“I urge you, Mr. Chairman, to instruct authorities at all levels to release all arrestees, publish new law on protesting as prescribed by the Constitution, and respect the popular will,” he continues.

In a video posted on YouTube, Bishop Michael Hoàng Đức Oanh also publicly rebuked priests who are members of the National Assembly. All of them were reported of voting in favor for the new cyber security law on June 12.

“These priests betray their faith and betray our country, for money and prestige bestowed on them by the communists,” said the prelate.

In fact, the new cyber security law, supposed to be in effect on January 1, 2019, has already caused great consequences to Catholic sites. Engineers from VietCatholic News, a news agency of Vietnamese Catholics based in California, USA, reported the reduction of at least 70% its Website traffic during last week.

“People have to reduce their internet activities out of fears being prosecuted,” explained Fr. Paul Văn Chi, spokesperson of The Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media. In a press release published days before, he criticised Vietnam’s national laws of lacking meaningful protections for privacy.

“The provisions in the cyber security law could make it easier for the government to identify and prosecute people for their peaceful online activities,” he warns.

Father Joseph Nguyễn of the Hanoi archdiocese fears that with the cyber security law, Catholics in the country have to rely more on the “Catholics and the Nation” a state-run outlet.

“The outlet seems to be rich in content. But be careful, things always have been, are and will be distorted through the prism of communism. Do not be so naive to think that communists fund for Catholics to evangelize,” he warns.

The magazine, which, despite its name, is controlled by the Communist party rather than the Church. Soon after the communists took control Vietnam, the magazine was first published on July 10th, 1975. This was part in an attempt of the government to set up a state-run Church. It has carried a series of anti-Vatican articles to lay harsh criticisms on Vatican and Pope John Paul II. It almost died after the death of its founder, Trương Bá Cần, who died on July, 10, 2009. The half-dead magazine has been funded abundantly by the government to revive it and appointed Father Phan Khắc Từ the chief editor of the magazine.

Comments made by the Pope Francis since his becoming pope on capitalism have been exploited by the magazine to paint the Holy Father as a Pope ideologically aligned with Marxists.

Từ, a member of communist party, is the Vice-chairman of the so-called “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics”, an organization born in 1975 in a plot to separate the Church in Vietnam from Vatican. He has lived publicly for decades with a woman and has 2 children.

The Canon Law - Article 285-3 - forbids the clergy from holding public office or political roles, except in exceptional circumstances and with special exceptions granted by ecclesiastical authority. In an open letter to Church leaders in Vietnam, many priests including Fr. Nguyễn Văn Lý – a dissident who spent 15 years in prison - argue that adherence to components of the Communist Party is one of the prohibited acts and ask the bishops for disciplinary action against guilty priests.

Speaking about the presence of representatives of the Catholic clergy in the government of the Communist Party, Father Joseph Nguyễn notes that it “in no way improves the condition of the Church” because they “have never raised a voice against the repressions and the forced evictions of land.” On the contrary, as violations of religious freedom worsen – such as physical abuse against priests who dare to challenge the regime - the priests close to the Communist Party have called for “more severe punishments against their brothers and sisters in faith.”

Working closely with young people, Father Joseph Trần adds another very important aspect: “Their presence in communist organizations has deeply undermined the credibility of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission,” he told AsiaNews. The priest said that it is difficult to make students understand the blatant violation of canon law, but they are “vigorously against this scandal that involves the Church in Vietnam.”