Hanoi: Church must end vigils or face legal action
HANOI, Vietnam – Communist authorities in Hanoi have threatened to take legal action against the city’s archbishop unless he immediately disbands illegal prayer vigils demanding the return of former church lands, state media reported Monday.
The government campaign against Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet escalated over the weekend, with state television calling into question his patriotism in an apparent attempt to turn public opinion against him.
State-controlled newspapers on Monday quoted from a letter to Kiet by Hanoi Mayor Nguyen The Thao accusing the cleric of instigating unrest.
“Stop your illegal acts immediately or you will be dealt with according to the law,” Thao wrote. “You have a responsibility to persuade priests and parishioners to abide by the law.”
Prayer is only allowed at church under Vietnamese law. The reports did not specify what form the legal action might take.
Catholics have been holding sporadic prayer vigils this year to demand the return of two plots of land once owned by the church but seized decades ago by Communist authorities. One is near Thai Ha Church, not far from the center of Hanoi, while the other is the site of the former Vatican Embassy, next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the city’s biggest church.
The Catholic land dispute is among many territorial issues that arose after the Communist government took power in 1954. The government seized many properties from private landowners, including the Catholic Church, to redistribute to those who fought in the Communist revolution.
The vigils have put great pressure on Hanoi officials, who are eager to project an image of religious tolerance but determined to maintain political control.
On Friday, the city began bulldozing the grounds of the former Vatican Embassy to clear the land for a public park and library.
Over the weekend, the crowds near the site grew as hundred of Catholics attended weekend masses at St. Joseph’s. They were closely watched by riot police and other security officers.
Immediately after the city began clearing the land, Kiet sent a letter to the president and prime minister demanding that they intervene.
City officials say the land belongs to Hanoi and will not be returned to the church. Church officials say they have old documents proving the land, which they regard as sacred, belongs to them.
On Saturday, the two sides met to discuss the situation but failed to resolve their disagreements.
State media called Kiet’s patriotism into question when he made a clumsy statement on television.
Talking about the need to strengthen Vietnam’s economy, Kiet said Vietnamese who travel abroad “feel ashamed” when they show their passports.
Vietnamese television described Kiet’s remark as “serious insult to the nation and all patriotic Vietnamese,” while Monday’s newspapers published letters from angry readers.
“I am furious,” reader Nguyen Binh Loc wrote in a letter to the Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi) newspaper. “Mr. Kiet has insulted me and the entire nation, who are proud to be Vietnamese.”
The city announced last week that it would use the St. Joseph’s site for a library and park. Catholics have long said they believed the city planned to sell the valuable land to private developers.
Religion is a sensitive subject in Vietnam, where the government closely monitors religious organizations.
The Catholic Church is the nation’s second largest denomination after Buddhism with roughly 6 million members.