Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam leads an Adoration of the eucharist at Phu Yen Church on May 7. He is one of two priests maligned by the government for leading environmental protests. (Photo courtesy of Nguoi Phu Yen)
Official media and state-aligned bodies in Vietnam have launched a campaign against two Catholic priests known for their environmental activism.
State-run media and a war veterans group have publicly attacked the reputations of Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam of Phu Yen parish and Father John Baptist Nguyen Dinh Thuc of Song Ngoc parish in northern Vietnam’s Vinh Diocese.
The two priests were at the forefront of peaceful demonstrations seeking proper compensation for victims of the Formosa Plastics steel plant marine pollution disaster that poisoned coastal waters and killed fish stocks off Vietnam’s central coast in April 2016.
In their campaign, Nghe An provincial government, state-run TV and newspapers have accused the two priests of "receiving money from reactionary organizations to incite and lead Catholics in protest against Formosa."
On May 2, the Association of War Veterans based in Nghe An province sent a letter to state agencies, Vietnamese bishops and Vinh Diocesan leaders accusing the priests of "distorting history," and "denying revolutionary fruits of the Communist Party and nation."
The letter was a response to a special Mass April 30, marking the country's reunification under communist rule in 1975. Father Nam told participants that April 30 was a day when "Vietnamese people lost their freedom and rights; the country became backward and impoverished."
Veterans accused Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of Vinh and other diocesan officials of "directing and giving the green light to Father Nam's wrongdoing."
On May 5, Nguyen Xuan Duong, chairman of Nghe An Province's People's Committee, accused Father Nam of fighting against the Party and state, violating laws and slandering authorities. He also asked Bishop Hop to "stop Father Nam's pastoral work."
State-run newspaper, Nghe An reported that the government had gathered thousands of students, women and veterans to stage protests against Father Nam.
Father Anthony Nguyen Van Dinh said in a petition that the government targeted the two priests because they "supported fishermen in collecting proof, prepared lawsuits and led them to file lawsuits against the Formosa company who caused the marine disaster."
Father Dinh, head of the diocesan Committee for Justice and Peace, compared the government's slander and criticism to the Land Reform Period in northern Vietnam (1953-1956) when thousands, including Catholic priests, were killed, imprisoned or prosecuted unfairly by communists.
"In a civilized society, the honor and dignity of all citizens must be respected and protected by the constitution and laws," he said.
The church official said the government's acts show that "citizens' fundamental rights, especially freedom of expression, are not respected." Those who express their freedom legally are still seen as violating laws, he added.
He asked the government to stop their "illegal and immoral" acts against the two priests and to "publicly apologize to the priests."
The petition was signed by 18 priests from two deaneries of Thuan Nghia and Vang Mai.
Vietnam's one-party communist state closely controls and monitors the Catholic community, the second largest religious group in the country after the Buddhists.