Miss Vietnam may keep crown despite faking diploma, officials say

Hanoi – Miss Vietnam 2008 has broken no rules and can keep her crown despite press reports that she faked her high school diploma, government and pageant officials said Friday. “School records do not have anything to do with the participation of the candidates” in the contest, said Duong Xuan Nam, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tien Phong and head of the organizing board of Miss Vietnam 2008.

Vietnamese newspapers reported Thursday that Tran Thi Thuy Dung, 18, had not graduated from high school after blogs posted images of transcripts and a diploma showing Dung receiving grades in courses classmates said she had dropped. The diploma was signed by the school’s principal.

At a press conference Friday, Nam said that while regulations of Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture and Information require pageant contestants to have graduated from high school, the Miss Vietnam rules permitted candidates who were still studying to enter.

“This is our fault,” Nam said. He said the pageant organizers thought a regulation demanding participants to be high-school graduates had been amended to allow contestants with a “high school education.

“Chu Tien Duc, an official at the government office in charge of cultural issues, said the Miss Vietnam board had violated government regulations and would have to answer to the Ministry of Culture.

But Duc insisted that a review of the profile Dung submitted for the contest showed she “had not been dishonest or deceitful.

“The government’s defence of Dung at the press conference suggested she would not be asked to give up her crown and might be allowed to continue her plans to compete in the Miss World 2008 contest.

But Le Quan Tan, head of the High School Department at the Ministry of Education, objected to allowing a pageant winner with fake credentials to keep her crown.

“You cannot say your education level is high school if you have not graduated,” Tan said. “I’m not sure about this case. But if it’s true, then you don’t deserve the title you have been given.

“In previous years, corruption in Vietnamese schools, including buying of grades and cheat sheets for tests, has been rampant. Since an answer-buying scandal in 2006 in a high school near Hanoi, teachers said corruption has declined.

Miss Vietnam may keep crown despite faking diploma, officials say : Asia World


Vietnam Archbishop Defends Land Protesters


Vietnamese Catholics get high-level support for protests calling on the government to return expropriated Church land.

BANGKOK—A top Catholic Church leader in Vietnam has defended peaceful protests by hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics for the return of Church lands seized by the Communist government in the 1950s, following the arrest of several demonstrators.

“I don’t see anything illegal in this matter, because the lot of land right beside their church belongs to them,” Hanoi Archbiship Ngo Quang Kiet said in an interview, referring to protests by several hundred Vietnamese Catholics from Hanoi’s Thai Ha parish for the return of parish property.

Some protesters have been beaten, and in recent days several were arrested, according to witnesses.

The official New Hanoi newspaper on Aug. 21 urged the archbishop to call on protesters to stop demonstrating, but Kiet said he hasn’t done so.

“I have not appealed to them [the protesters] to stop their prayers. I’ve asked them to say their prayers constantly, and especially to say them in peace and without violence, to pray in safety,” Kiet said.

“There is nothing that violates the law, and there is no disruption of social order and security at all and there is no interference in the lives of others, either,” he said.

No access to media

Kiet also criticized the Vietnamese government’s monopoly of the country’s mass media

“The reason why you don’t see or hear the opinions of the Office of the Archbishop in the mass media is that such means of communication belongs to the government, and that we don’t have any right to use it to express our viewpoints,” Kiet said.

“Of course I’ve appealed the government to listen to others.  People have their needs and aspirations, so the government should listen to their voices,” he said.

“I don’t see anything illegal in this matter, because the lot of land right beside their church belongs to them, so there is nothing that violates the law, and there is no disruption of social order and security at all, and there is no interference in the lives of others, either. So I think that nothing in this matter is illegal.”

“We don’t have any tools or weapons in our hands, so we only know to say our prayers. And we always pray that the Catholics will be in safety and that justice will appear,” Kiet said.

The land at issue was part of the capital’s Thai Ha parish until the mid-1950s when communists took power from the French in North Vietnam and seized most church land.

The government has used most of the six-hectare (15-acre) property to build a hospital, a now-demolished textile factory, and other structures. Government official say the church gave them the land decades ago, but Catholics dispute that claim.

Legal action

The state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA) has reported that police have initiated “legal proceedings” against people involved in the dispute after Christians broke part of a wall and entered the property on Aug. 15.

After the Philippines, Vietnam has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community, numbering about 6 million.

In its most recent report on human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department noted that while the Vietnamese constitution and government provide for freedom of worship, “the government persisted in placing restrictions on the organized, political activities of religious groups,” although overall respect for religious freedom improved during 2007.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last week criticized Vietnam’s record on religious freedom, citing abuses against the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, indigenous sects such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, and discrimination against Christians.

The commission urged the State Department to re-designate Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

Original reporting by Tra Mi for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Vietnam Archbishop Defends Land Protesters

Catholics assert themselves in Hanoi land dispute

The faithful gather in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, to demand the return of the Catholic churchs land that they say was taken by Vietnams communist government in the early 1960s. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

The faithful gather in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, to demand the return of the Catholic church's land that they say was taken by Vietnam's communist government in the early 1960s. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — At a vacant lot in downtown Hanoi, Catholics have gathered to worship the Virgin Mary — and pressure the communist authorities.

For the second time this year, the city’s Catholics have taken the extraordinary step of occupying state-controlled land that once belonged to the church. Their gatherings are putting pressure on a government eager to project religious tolerance but determined to maintain political control and public order.

Hundreds of Catholics have been holding daily prayer vigils since Aug. 15 to demand the return of the plot next to the Thai Ha Church. They broke through the brick wall surrounding the weed-covered, rubble-strewn site and installed a 15-foot-tall crucifix, dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary and hundreds of bamboo crosses.

City officials have pleaded with them to leave, but the crowds grew last week after rumors circulated that the Virgin Mary herself had come to lend her support.

In the decades after Vietnam’s communists took power in 1954, the church was tightly controlled and public demonstrations were banned. But in recent years, religious freedom has increased gradually and the government has grown more tolerant of land protests by farmers and others.

These changes are part of a broader evolution that began in the 1990s and have accelerated as Vietnam has opened to foreign investment. Greater personal liberty has followed, with consumers gaining access to everything from CNN to Gucci to the World Wide Web.

Earlier this year, Catholics held prayer vigils next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi’s biggest church, to demand the return of land where the Vatican Embassy stood until the communists severed relations with the church in Rome.

Those demonstrations ended after authorities agreed to discuss the church’s claim if the demonstrators halted their vigils.

“The talks are moving very slowly, and there has not been much progress,” Hanoi Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.

The land at Thai Ha is 17,000 square yards — roughly the size of two American football fields. The protesters began their vigils after they saw potential buyers scouting the land and heard a rumor that the city planned to sell the site, worth millions of dollars, to a property developer to build 28 residential and commercial lots.

After the vigils began, the government announced that it planned to turn the site into a public park. It views the demonstrators as vandals and trespassers, and has launched a campaign of denunciation in the state-owned media.

“A number of parishioners and some priests have ignored public opinion and belittled the rule of law,” wrote the New Hanoi newspaper. It accused the Thai Ha priests of hatching “wicked plots.”

Tensions increased last month after parishioners and two priests said dozens of police used stun guns and clubs to disperse a crowd of nearly 300 that had gathered outside a police station near the disputed land. City officials deny the charge.

“I am very upset that the police used violence to interfere with the prayer of Catholics,” Kiet said. “Their vigils are very peaceful. We don’t want to overthrow the authorities.”

The archbishop said the vigils are grassroots initiatives not organized by the Hanoi diocese, but he supports them. “The Thai Ha parish has official ownership of that land,” he said.

He acknowledged that Hanoi has increased religious freedom in recent years, but less than he would like.

Senior government officials have grown more supportive, and pressure has been applied by the international community and Vietnamese Catholics, who have grown increasingly assertive, Kiet said.

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second largest religion after Buddhism in the nation of 84 million.

Land ownership rules are complex in Vietnam, where the government controls all property.

After the communists ousted the French colonial regime, they seized land from wealthy property owners, including the Catholic church, and distributed it to those who fought in the revolution.

The church claims it has documents verifying its claim to the Thai Ha land. The city claims a former parish priest signed papers turning the property over to Hanoi in 1962.

The Associated Press: Catholics assert themselves in Hanoi land dispute