HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnamese authorities denied Friday that they had used force or stun guns to break up a demonstration by Catholics who are demanding the return of land the Communist government took more than four decades ago.
Responding to accusations from protesters, including one who was bleeding, Hanoi’s police chief told reporters Friday that officers had broken up the demonstration of about 300 people peacefully.
“Like police in other countries, we never use any kind of tools to beat unarmed people,” Hanoi police Chief Nguyen Duc Nhanh told a news conference. “We just talked to them and the crowd dispersed.”
Six people, including two priests, told The Associated Press that police had beaten and shocked church members who had gathered Thursday outside a police station to pray for the release of parishioners who were arrested earlier in the day.
Members of Thai Ha Church in Hanoi have been holding round-the-clock prayer vigils for nearly two weeks to demand the return of land next to their church that the government took in the early 1960s.
On Aug. 15, the day the vigils began, church members knocked down a section of a fence surrounding the property and placed several statues of the Virgin Mary inside.
Police say they arrested three people for damaging the fence. Church members, however, have said four were arrested in the fence incident and another seven following Thursday’s demonstration.
One of the priests, Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, said Friday that police were lying about their actions.
“I was there and I saw them using stun guns to give electrical shocks to our church members,” Phong said in an interview. “I could see the guns flare. They also beat people. Their denial once again shows that they never respect the truth.”
Church leaders filed a complaint Friday protesting the conduct of police.
The Associated Press spoke to a parishioner shortly after the clash who had sought refuge inside the church, about 300 yards (meters) from the police station.
“They beat me on my face and used a stun gun to shock my daughter,” said Nguyen Thi Phuc, who had blood on her face and shirt.
Hanoi authorities called the news conference Friday to address the land dispute and the charges of police violence.
Vu Hong Khanh, vice chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, said the church members had no legal basis to demand the return of the land.
“If they need more land for their religious practice they have to apply to authorities to be granted land in accordance with the law,” Khanh said.
Parishioners are seeking a 172,000 square foot (16,000 square meter) parcel next to their church. The lot is now occupied by a state-owned textile company.
Although religious freedom has been growing in Vietnam recently, the state closely monitors religious organizations and only recognizes a half-dozen officially sanctioned faiths, including Catholicism.
Catholicism is Vietnam’s second-largest faith — after Buddhism — with more than 6 million adherents.
In the years after Vietnam’s Communist government took power in 1954, all private land was taken over by the government.
Although demonstrations of any kind are rare in Vietnam, church members have been asserting themselves more boldly in recent months.
Earlier this year, Catholic leaders organized prayer vigils at a parcel of land near Hanoi’s main cathedral demanding the return of that site, which once housed the Vatican’s embassy in Vietnam.