Vietnam: underground Buddhists show solidarity with Hanoi Catholics

A leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has shown his support to Hanoi Catholics, in their quest to regain confiscated church property. He said the state-approved Buddhist leaders, who claimed the property was theirs, were: “tools of the Communist Party”.

Hanoi Catholics who earlier this month won a government promise to restore Church control of the building that once housed the apostolic nunciature, now face a serious complication, as a state-approved Buddhist group has claimed ownership of the land. In a letter sent to the prime minister of Vietnam – dated February 16 – Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) stated that any handover of property to the Catholic Church could not take place without the approval of the VBC, because he said, they were the authentic owners of the land. He argued that on the land in dispute there had been a pagoda named Bao Thien built in 1054. In 1883, “The French colonists seized and gave it to Bishop Puginier”, he stated.

However, in an interview with the BBC on 23 February, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Commissioner for Social and Humanitarian Affairs of UBCV stated that the Catholic Church is actually the legal owner of the land. “The Catholic Church”, he said “legally owned the land before the VBD was established, and even before Hau was born”.

A state-run magazine published in 2001 states that the Bao Thien pagoda was destroyed in 1426 and that it was located in another place about 5km in the north of the nunciature. The plot of land on which the archbishop’s residence, the city’s Catholic cathedral, and St Joseph seminary are located had been vacant for a long time before 1883, when these building were constructed.

Thich Khong Tanh questions the political motive of the VBD leadership. “It is clear that the government is reluctant to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Catholics. Now, they want to use Buddhists to confront the Catholics for them”, he said urging Vietnam Buddhists not allow the government to do so.

He pointed out that the UBCV has no dealings with the Catholic Church, but added that two key UBCV institutions have also been seized by the government: the Vietnam Quoc Tu Pagoda and the Quang Duc Cultural Centre in Saigon.

The UBCV, which claims to lead 80% of Buddhists in Vietnam, has been outlawed since 1981, when the atheist government set up the state-controlled VBC. Like other Buddhist monks in UBCV, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, 65,has spent 15 years in prison for his faith and is an outspoken advocacy of human rights.

Father Joseph Nguyen from Hanoi reported that some government officials have already criticized those involved in the letter of Thich Trung Hau. This development may drive Catholics to cooperate with the UBCV in future.

The state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church in Hanoi is going to host the upcoming international celebrations of the 2008 Vesak Festival ­ the Anniversary of the Birth of Buddha. Up til now, celebrations have taken place in Thailand. This year, Vietnam asked the Thai government to allow Hanoi to host the Vesak festival. This looks set to pose additional tensions in the country.


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