HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam’s Catholics have increased pressure on the authorities to return church land confiscated more than half a century ago in a rare challenge to the communist government.
Throughout the weekend, hundreds of protestors have maintained a prayer vigil in front of a house next to St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, the seat of the church in Vietnam until it was seized after the departure of the French and arrival of the communists in 1954.
Friday saw an even larger protest, with between 1,500 and 2,000 gathered, according to estimates by priests.
For the past month, similar peaceful demonstrations have been held at the site, sometimes blocking traffic in the tourist heart of Hanoi.
In the wake of the first gatherings, Prime Minister Tan Nguyen Dung held a rare meeting with the archbishop of Hanoi, Monsignor Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet.
His promise to look into the case, however, was not enough to reassure the protestors.
The vigil continued Sunday night despite an ultimatum by the authorities to end the gathering by 5:00 pm, according to sources at the archbishop’s palace.
Some among the ranks of demonstrators said they would continue with their open air prayer vigils until the building is returned to the church.
“I think that the government should do something. It cannot continue to ignore the wishes of the Catholics,” said Khanh, a 33-year-old teacher who did not wish to give his surname.
The return of the land confiscated by the communists, who have ruled the whole of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975 and the reunification of the country, is one of the main demands of the Catholic church.
Like other religions in Vietnam, the church remains under tight control by the authorities.
With about six million faithful, representing around seven percent of the population, the Catholic community in Vietnam is the second most important in Southeast Asia, after the Philippines.
Its situation in the communist country has however improved noticeably over the past few years.
“Compared with before, we enjoy much greater freedom,” acknowledged one priest, who wished to remain anonymous.
Now, “it’s much easier to carry out ordinations, to move priests (from one parish to another)”.
At the end of 2005, 57 priests were ordained at St Joseph’s Cathedral in a lavish ceremony celebrated by a cardinal from the Vatican.
Strained relations between Hanoi and the Holy See have also started to ease, with the Vietnamese prime minister even making a milestone visit to the Vatican a year ago.
But conditions have not improved equally for Catholics across the country, with those in large cities enjoying a degree of freedom unknown in rural areas.
In the remote provinces and villages, “essential freedoms” such as celebrating mass and catechism courses still come under attack, the priest said.
Christian festivals such as Christmas have become popular, with thousands of followers now crowding churches, but religious issues remain sensitive, even in the main urban centres, many worshippers say.