Vietnam court convicts Catholics in land dispute

Eight Vietnamese Catholics, standing, go on trial Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, for allegedly disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils held last year as part of a campaign to get back confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

Eight Vietnamese Catholics, standing, go on trial Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, for allegedly disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils held last year as part of a campaign to get back confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thong Nhat)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A Vietnamese court convicted eight Catholics on Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property during a series of prayer vigils to get back confiscated church land, but gave them light sentences.

One defendant received a warning while the others were given suspended sentences ranging from 12 to 15 months. They received up to two years of probation and were sent home.

The mostly peaceful but illegal vigils were a bold step in a country where church-state relations are often tense and the government frowns on public protests of any kind. The dispute did not focus on religious freedom but on a parcel of land worth millions of dollars.

Catholics and their supporters pray outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Catholics and their supporters pray outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Hundreds of Catholics, many carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary, cheered as the defendants emerged from the Donga Da district court. Some raised one of the defendants over their heads in jubilation, while others chanted “Innocent! Innocent!”

Scores of riot police stood guard around the building during the verdict, but no clashes were reported.

As he left the court, defendant Nguyen Dac Hung, 31, said he would appeal his 12-month suspended sentence. “I’m totally innocent,” he said. “This is an unjust verdict.”

While they decried the verdicts, Catholics were relieved by the light sentences. The defendants could have received up to seven years in prison.

“The authorities made a concession to the struggles of our Catholic brothers and sisters,” said Le Quang Uy, a Catholic who came to show his support. “This is our victory.”

The defendants were arrested several months ago during a series of prayer vigils held to demand the return of the land near the Thai Ha church.

Hundreds of Catholics gathered at the site for several weeks. They knocked down a section of the wall surrounding the land, set up an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary on the site and prayed for its return.

During Monday’s trial, the defendants maintained their innocence, saying they had peacefully sought the return of church land.

“Peaceful vigils cannot be illegal,” said defendant Nguyen Thi Viet, 59. “We did not disturb public order. We did nothing wrong.”

Hanoi authorities say the Thai Ha church and its surrounding land belong to the city. They say a former parish priest signed papers turning the property over to Hanoi in 1962.

Church members insist they have documents verifying their claim on the property.

Property laws are complex in Vietnam, where Communist authorities seized buildings and land from wealthy landowners, churches and other groups after taking power. Such properties were used by the state or redistributed to veterans or others who helped bring the Communists to power.

Earlier this year, Catholics also held vigils at a second valuable parcel of land in central Hanoi, the site of the former Vatican embassy in Vietnam, which closed after the Communist government took power in 1954.

A woman pray in front of Vietnamese police officers outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

A woman pray in front of Vietnamese police officers outside the Dong Da district court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, during a trial. Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the courthouse Monday morning to support eight Vietnamese Catholics who went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

In each case, the Catholics began their demonstrations after hearing rumors the government planned to sell the properties to developers.

As the conflicts escalated, the government announced it would convert each site into a public park and open a library at the former Vatican site.

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second most popular religion after Buddhism in the country of 86 million. Masses at Catholic churches around the country are heavily attended.

Vietnam has often come under international criticism for its record on religious and human rights. But in recent years, relations between Catholics and the government have begun to improve, emboldening church members to assert themselves more.

Vietnam and the Vatican have been discussing the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hFaNWDuuQ4A1hcYeEtbf3GoGu5AwD94UG40G2

Catholic protesters face court in Vietnam

A Catholic church in Vietnam where eight Catholics have gone on trial on public order charges

A Catholic church in Vietnam where eight Catholics have gone on trial on public order charges

HANOI (AFP) — Eight Vietnamese Catholics went on trial Monday charged with disturbing public order and destroying property in the communist country during rallies over a land dispute.

The defendants were among thousands who joined prayer vigils and peaceful rallies over the past year in the capital Hanoi demanding the return of Catholic church land seized by the state half a century ago.

The eight defendants — four men and four women — are accused of causing public disorder and destroying property, charges that each carry up to seven years’ jail, at the height of the demonstrations in August.

To back the state’s case, prosecutors in court showed video footage of Catholic protesters tearing down part of a brick wall around a disputed parcel of land adjacent to the Thai Ha Redemptorist parish.

Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Most church lands and many other buildings and farms were taken over by the state after communists took power in North Vietnam in 1954. The disputed Tai Ha property was used by a state textile factory that has since been demolished.

The Tai Ha property and another disputed plot of land in the centre of Hanoi — the site of the former Vatican embassy adjacent to the main St Joseph’s Cathedral — were turned into public parks in recent months.

Several of the defendants in Monday’s hearing acknowleged taking part in some of the unauthorised mass meetings held since before Christmas 2007, but they told the court they were doing so to protect church property.

“I know for sure the land belongs to the church,” said 54-year-old Ngo Thi Dung, one of two women who has been held in detention for several months.

The other female detainee, Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, admitted displaying posters and using a musical gong in the rallies, saying she also tried “to protect the land of the church.”

Also on trial but earlier released on bail were two more women — Nguyen Thi Viet, 59, and Le Thi Hoi, 61 — and four men — Le Quang Kien, 63, Pham Chi Nang, 50, Ngyen Dac Hung, 31, and Thai Thanh Hai, 21.

Hoi denied causing public disorder, saying “when we pray, we are quiet.”

Catholics hold a vigil outside court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Catholics hold a vigil outside court in Hanoi where eight of their religious group have gone on trial

Access to Monday’s hearing was restricted by officials who cited the small size of the courtroom in the Dong Da local government building.

Four foreign diplomats and two journalists for foreign news organisations were allowed to follow the hearing via closed-circuit television.

Vietnam’s tightly controlled media has largely ignored the trial.

Thousands of Catholics in parishes across Vietnam, including southern Ho Chi Minh City, have held prayers and vigils to support the defendants, said the online Catholic news service vietcatholic.net.

More than 500 Catholic faithful, including priests holding religious icons, held a vigil and sang hymns outside the government building where the trial was being held, watched over by riot police and plain-clothed officers.

“We came here to ask for justice,” said one supporter in the crowd, 67-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoa. “The Catholic detainees are all innocent.”

Another Catholic, holding up a picture of the Virgin Mary, said “the charges are groundless because these people only protected the land of the church. They did not commit any violence against the authorities.”

Vietnam, a former French colony and a unified communist country since the war ended in 1975, has Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic community after the Philippines — at least six million out of a population of 86 million.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i_XFM25iyhj70czxNIb48vCxWegQ

Vietnam Catholics protest at land dispute trial

HANOI (Reuters) – Hundreds of Vietnamese police and riot police sealed off streets leading to a government building on Monday as eight Catholics went on trial over their attempt to claim a plot of disputed land in the capital.

More than 1,000 Vietnamese Catholics turned up at the People’s Committee offices in a Hanoi district to protest against the trial, a rare expression of dissent against the southeast Asian country’s ruling Communist Party.

In a peaceful demonstration, the Catholics sang hymns and held up banners demanding justice for the eight, whose court appearance is the latest twist in a dispute that has been rumbling on for months.

The piece of land in question is owned by a garment company but the protesters argue it is church land.

In August, state television showed pictures of people using hoes and hammers to break what it said was a section of the brick wall surrounding the plot, leading to police claims of “causing public disorder” and “intentional destruction of property.”

“They’re trying these eight people to send a message to the rest,” one of the protesters told Reuters, asking not to be named for fear of recrimination.

Religion remains under state supervision in the mostly Buddhist country, although Vietnam has the second largest Catholic community in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, with about 6 million among the 86.5 million population.

The Hanoi government is working toward establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Pope there a year ago.

(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould)

http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE4B70Q720081208

Vietnamese Catholics on trial in land dispute case

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Eight Vietnamese Catholics went on trial Monday on charges of disturbing public order and damaging property while holding prayer vigils to demand the return of confiscated church land.

The Catholics are accused of knocking down a brick wall surrounding property near the Thai Ha church in Hanoi’s Dong Da district during several weeks of prayer vigils late last summer. They face up to seven years in prison.

Several hundred Catholics gathered outside the Dong Da district court Monday morning, displaying pictures of the Virgin Mary. Scores of riot police stood guard around the building, but no clashes were reported.

As testimony began Monday, defendant Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, said church members held the vigils to “protect the prestige and property of the church.”

Property laws are complex in Vietnam, where communist authorities seized buildings and acreage from wealthy landowners, churches and other groups since taking power in 1954. Such properties were used by the state or redistributed to veterans or others who helped bring the communists to power.

Hanoi authorities, who have since turned the property into a public park, say the Thai Ha church and its surrounding land belong to the city.

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

With more than 6 million followers, Catholicism is the second most popular religion after Buddhism in the nation of 86 million.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hFaNWDuuQ4A1hcYeEtbf3GoGu5AwD94U9UC80

Hanoi’s policy: eliminate Catholics

by Thanh Thuy
There is a fundamental lack of understanding on the part of the authorities of the very idea of religion behind the choice of oppression and discrimination as seen in the trial against the parishioners of Thai Ha.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – There is a failure to understand the very idea of religion on the part of Vietnam’s political authorities behind the constant attempt to suffocate Catholicism, Protestantism, and also other religions, as now being seen in the trial that on December 5 will be held against eight faithful of the parish of Thai Ha.

If one visits Vietnam, in many parishes one can see the announcements “pray for the Church of Vietnam” or “pray for peace and justice.” This is an invocation always present in the prayers of Catholics in this country. Catholics whom the communist government has oppressed in a sophisticated way and on various levels. But on this occasion, the authorities are not respecting the council of Vietnamese bishops. They clearly want to eliminate the Catholics.

The government has violated religious freedom and is preparing to sentence the eight faithful of the parish of Thai Ha for unjust reasons, accusing them of damaging property and disturbing public order. They are trying the eight faithful in order to threaten the other Catholics and the faithful of other religions, and in general their aim is to threaten people who want to fight for justice and religious freedom.

Every Catholic and every parish has been invited to pray for justice, peace, and religious freedom in Vietnam. The faithful this time need the voice of the bishops to express the truth, denouncing that the government has appropriated Church property, but has falsely accused the Catholics.

At the origin of the discrimination of the authorities against believers, and not only Christians, a professor of the National University of Hanoi explains to AsiaNews, “there is a prejudice. The very concept of religion is explained poorly. They do not understand well, so they lead the country badly, bringing many negative consequences like government corruption, poor education, injustice toward farmers trying to work to make a living and feed themselves.”

The idea of the Vietnamese communists about religion is that this “is a form of social conscience. Conscience reflects mythology, the illusion of objective reality. Religion is always based on belief, a belief in the transcendent. Religion cannot be examined by reality.”

Thus the government has instructed the authorities on all levels to “control the situation of the religions, classify the faithful of the religions in order to reach appropriate solutions to convince people to leave their religion.” And the political approach is to oppose, exclude, and discriminate against Catholics in Vietnam.

http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=13887&size=A

Hanoi authorities want no one to attend Thai Ha Catholics trial

Anyone who wants to attend the proceedings must submit a written request. The trial itself will not be held in a courthouse but on the 4th floor of the People’s Committee building. On the same day that the trial starts the capital’s auxiliary bishop is consecrated.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Increasingly the trial that Hanoi authorities are organising against Thai Ha Catholic parishioners is taking on political connotations. Their alleged crime is to have protested in favour of the return of land belonging to their parish that was seized by the state. However, not only did the authorities prevent two of the accused from seeing their attorneys, but they are making sure that it is very difficult for anyone to attend the proceedings.First of all, there is the date. It has been known for some time that the trail is to start on 5 December, the same day when the new auxiliary bishop of the capital, Mgr Chu Van Minh, is set to be consecrated.

Local priests will be involved in the cathedral rather than attend the trial. Similarly, tradition dictates that the laity, especially the most involved, will take part in great numbers in the ceremony and thus, like the priests, will not be able to go to the courthouse.

But this is not all. Under Vietnamese law trials are public unless the dignity of the plaintiff is at stake, which is not the case.

According to the Églises d’Asie, the lawyer for the accused, Le Tran Luat, has said that the accused have been verbally informed that anyone who wants to attend the trial must submit a written request. This is a patent violation of the principle of open trial and reflects a desire to limit the number of those present. The need to present a written request means that the authorities will be able to know who wants to attend, which is a clear attempt at intimidation.

And last but not least. The authorities have announced that the trial will not take place in the Hanoi Courthouse but rather on the fourth floor of the People’s Committee building (city hall) in Hoàng Cau Street, in Dong Da district.

On 15 November a delegate from the People’s Committee visited the Redemptorists’ convent, who are responsible for Thai Ha parish, for an urgent meeting. But it was all a diversionary manoeuvre since “hundreds of people had gathered to attack the chapel.”


http://new.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=13874

Vietnam: Catholics on trial denied lawyer access

Lawyer says he has evidence of their innocence but is afraid proceedings will turn into a political show trial that will prevent acquittal. The Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media calls on Hanoi to respect its own laws.

Two of the eight Catholics set to go on trial for the Thai Ha parish land dispute have not been allowed to meet their lawyers, said one of them, Le Tran Luat. More importantly, he believes that the defendants are not likely to be acquitted despite their innocence because the trial is turning more and more into a political show trial.

During an interview with the BBC Mr Le said that he was able to meet only six of the eight people accused with “damaging state property and disorderly conduct” during their protests at Thai Ha parish.

The two defendants he was not able to see are Nguyen Thi Nhi, 46, and Ngo Thi Dung, 54. Both women are being held at Hoa Lo Prison, once known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ to US prisoners of war and now infamous for holding political prisoners. Access to this facility is generally limited.

“I was denied the permission to visit my clients there,” Mr Le said. However, even if he could see them, “prisoners are often forced to refuse any contact with their lawyers,” he added.

Those who do get to see their lawyers suffer mistreatment and punishment by prison guards.

For Mr Le from a legal point of view the charge of damaging state property is flawed because he has “enough evidence to prove that the land belongs to them [the parishioners].

In fact “the wall [they tore down] was built illegally on their land,” he said. And “they had every right to destroy it.” Hence the “government cannot charge them for damaging state property.”

In addition, the defendants prayed inside the place. “Praying is a solemn gesture,” the lawyer said. “How can it be interpreted as an act of ‘disorderly conduct’?”

Yet, despite his best efforts, “I cannot expect an acquittal verdict for my clients in this case,” he lamented.

“In my experience, in such a case, if defendants plead guilty as the government expects, they may get a tolerant verdict. Those who insist that they are not guilty will be sentenced more harshly [. . .], two and half or three years in jail.” But “I want to prove to public opinion that they actually are innocent,” Mr Le said.

Hanoi’s Redemptorist community, which oversees Thai ha Parish, is concerned about the fate of the two women, especially Ms Nguyen because she was targeted by vehement attacks in the state-run media for taking part in demonstrations over the former apostolic delegation compound.

Never the less, the eight Catholics’ trial is drawing international attention.

In Sydney the Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media has launched a worldwide appeal, calling on the Vietnamese government to “stop the media campaign against the Catholic clergy, their faithful, and the Church” and instead “respect its own law and return the property to its rightful owner.”

The appeal is signed among others by Mgr Peter Tai Van Nguyen, director of Radio Veritas Asia (Philippines); Fr John Nghi Tran, director of VietCatholic News Agency (United States); Fr Joachim Viet-Chau Nguyen Duc, director of People Of God Magazine in America; Fr Anthony Quang Huu Nguyen, director of People Of God Magazine in Australia; Fr Stephen Luu Thuong Bui, director of People Of God Magazine in Europe; and Fr Paul Van-Chi Chu, director of Gospel and Peace Radio, Sydney (Australia).

http://www.speroforum.com/site/article.asp?id=16862&t=Vietnam%3A+Catholics+on+trial+denied+lawyer+access

Catholic Detainees Involved In Church Land Disputes With Government To Be Tried

BANGKOK (UCAN) — Ha Noi Catholics are upset at government authorities for planning to try eight lay Catholics involved in local Church-government land disputes on the same day an auxiliary bishop is to be ordained for the archdiocese.

5938_1.jpg
Catholics pray in front of the Marian statue in Ha Noi’s Thai Ha Church on Nov. 24, Feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs. They prayed for the return of local Church properties, justice and peace and eight Catholics who will be on trial on Dec 5.

Ha Noi city’s Dong Da District Court “informed us that eight Catholics will go on trial Dec. 5 at the headquarters of the People’s Committee of O Cho Dua ward, one kilometer away from our church,” Redemptorist Father Pierre Nguyen Van Khai told UCA News on Nov. 24.

Father Khai works at Redemptorist-run Thai Ha parish, where hundreds of Catholics occupied a former plot of Church land near the parish church on Aug. 15, feast of the Assumption. They put crosses and Marian statues at the plot, which the government confiscated in the early 1960’s. The district court issued its summons Nov. 21 to four men and four women, who range in age from 21 to 63.

One of the four, Marie Nguyen Thi Nhi, an ethnic Muong woman, was arrested on Aug. 28 after she and other Muong Catholics played gongs and prayed at the site. The government is charging her with causing social disturbance. It has accused the others, all from the capital, of damaging public property and causing social disturbance.

vt_ha_noi.gifA local Church source told UCA News on Nov. 25 that Nhi, who is from Hoa Binh province, and Ngo Thi Dung have been kept in Hoa Lo prison in the capital while others are under house arrest.

“Local Redemptorists and Catholics feel tense and angry at the court, who decided to try those innocent Catholics on Dec. 5, when our auxiliary bishop-elect Laurence Chu Van Minh of Ha Noi is scheduled to be ordained,” Father Khai said. The government might want to cause difficulties for the local Church, knowing many Catholics want to attend the ordination, but authorities also might be afraid of many Catholics attending the trial, he suggested.

The priest revealed that the parish is asking lawyers for the accused to work with court officials to reschedule the trial on another day.

Jean Baptiste Nguyen Huu Vinh, a Catholic from the capital, told UCA News local Catholics “are very offended to hear the accused will be put on trial on the same day as the episcopal ordination.”

Vinh said the eight accused are innocent, so fellow Catholics will gather at churches throughout the country to pray for the defendants to get a fair trial.

Paul Tran Quang Minh from the capital said he does not expect the defendants will be tried fairly, “because government officials have already decided their sentences.” The coming trial, he added, “will only be a joke.”

5938_2.jpg
Catholics pray in front of the Marian statue in Ha Noi’s Thai Ha Church on Nov. 24, Feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs. They prayed for the return of local Church properties, justice and peace and eight Catholics who will be on trial on Dec 5.

Father Khai, 38, expects the defendants will receive prison terms of up to three years, which “would disappoint us because they did not break the laws.” The damage which the government claims seven of the accused Catholics caused to the wall around the controversial plot of land was reportedly estimated at only 3.7 million dong (US$218). The government later destroyed the wall and built a flower garden on the site in October.

The Redemptorist priest reported court officials said they will allow local Catholics and priests including Redemptorists to attend the trial, but they will have to present their personal identity cards to security officials. He hopes many people will attend the hearing.

On the evening of Nov. 24, the feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs, 2,000 Catholics attended a special Mass at Thai Ha church. They prayed for the return of Church properties, for justice and peace, and for the Catholic victims. After Mass, they marched to the Marian statue in the compound, placed candles at the statue, offered incense and sang hymns.

Some women told UCA News they were sad to hear their fellow Catholics would be tried unjustly. “We can do nothing but pray to God for them to be free,” one of them noted.

They said they love the local Redemptorists, whom they described as looking pale and haggard after struggling for justice and peace, and preventing gangsters supported by police from threatening Religious and attacking parish properties at night.

http://www.ucanews.com/2008/11/26/catholic-detainees-involved-in-church-land-disputes-with-government-to-be-tried/

Crackdown in Hanoi

BY SIMON ROUGHNEEN

Register Correspondent

Posted 10/28/08 at 9:55 AM

SINGAPORE — Vietnam’s communist authorities have upped the ante in an ongoing dispute with the Catholic Church. Now, they’re calling for the removal of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi.

According to the state-run Vietnam News Agency, Nguyen The Thao, chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, told foreign diplomats Oct. 15 that “a number of priests, led by Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, took advantage of parishioners’ beliefs and their own low awareness of the law to instigate unrest.”

The unrest he must have been referring to is prayer.

Since late 2007, the archbishop has led prayer vigils across the city, as Vietnam’s 6 million Catholics had been protesting the government’s moves to turn the former apostolic nunciature in Hanoi into a public park.

Last month, however, the government’s reaction to the vigils turned violent, with riot police, stun guns and tear gas used against the gatherings.

Father Peter Khai Van Nguyen is a Redemptorist at the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi, site of one of the vigils and also a location for government-confiscated Church land.

He said that “eight months after promising to restore Church ownership of a building that once housed the office of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi, Vietnamese authorities suddenly begun demolishing the building, provoking the outrage of Catholic protestors and drawing a heated protest from the city’s archbishop.”

Carl Thayer is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and is a longtime watcher of Hanoi’s politics. “This land dispute has escalated and turned nasty,” he said. “The state media have vilified and defamed key Catholic leaders. Officials have organized gangs of revolutionary youth and military veterans to attack Catholics holding peaceful prayer vigils and to deface religious statues.”

Secular non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which is at odds with Catholic teaching on abortion, have spoken out about the actions of the communist authorities in Hanoi. In a statement released Oct. 4, Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director in Asia, said, “This is the harshest crackdown on Catholics in Vietnam in decades.”

Relations between the Church and Vietnam are similar to those in China, where the government, not the Church, determines state-run church appointments. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Vatican in early 2007.

The latest persecution of the Church comes soon after Vietnam won plaudits for its relaxation of restrictions on religious expression, presaging the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

Hanoi then won a U.N. Security Council seat earlier this year, and it teamed up with China and Russia to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Robert Mugabe’s brutal crackdown on the Zimbabwean opposition after elections were held in the African country in spring 2008.

Nina Shea is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan body set up in 1998 to “monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ and related international instruments and to give independent policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and the Congress.”

She said that “a clear example of how trade trumped concern for religious freedom occurred in 2006 on the eve of President Bush’s visit to Vietnam for an economic summit, when the State Department removed Vietnam from its short list of the world’s worst religious persecutors.”

That move has more to do with diplomatic and economic exigencies as U.S.-Vietnam trade expands than real progress on religious freedom.

And Catholics are not the only religious group under pressure. According to Shea, “Religious organizations that resist government control of their leaders, religious texts, activities and rites are banned and experience harsh oppression.”

The presence of the autonomous Church is likely seen by the Communist Party as an intolerable challenge to state authority at a time of economic weakness. Vietnam’s rulers have taken a path somewhat akin to China, coupling selective free-market reforms with continued political authoritarianism.

“Party conservatives are invariably concerned about reforming too fast and provoking political instability,” Thayer said. “Now that inflation has risen and social problems have arisen, such as record strikes in the garment and textile industries, party conservatives are once again voicing concerns about political stability. Any activism that is pro-democracy or related to religious freedom is viewed as ‘part of the plot by hostile external forces to overthrow the socialist regime.’”

In early October, the Communist Party Central Committee held a summit meeting to discuss the growing economic crisis and gave the party’s Politburo oversight of the economy until the end of this year, taking policy out of the hands of the Dung government.

Protestant missionaries in Vietnam’s north have also worried the Politburo, with conversions evoking the drift to Catholicism promoted by French missionaries in the 1800s, which undermined the then-Confucian elite in the mainly-Buddhist country.

Some Buddhist movements have also been targets of the government’s ire. Arrests of religious leaders continue, and in its most recent report on Vietnam, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined its view “that in all of the most recent cases of arrest, imprisonment and other detention, religious leaders and religious freedom advocates had engaged in actions protected by international human rights instruments.”

And Vietnam is playing hardball not just with the Church. A prominent journalist was jailed for his role in exposing a multimillion dollar corruption scandal in which aid money donated from the World Bank and the European Union, among others, was used by senior and middle-ranking transport officials to bet on soccer matches in England.

Nguyen Viet Chien, a reporter with the daily newspaper Thanh Nien, was sentenced to two years in jail for exposing the scandal, work which the courts declared to be an “abuse of democratic freedoms.”

Other reporters, apparently eager to appease the government after Chien’s incarceration, have begun concocting stories that a majority of Vietnam’s Catholics are at odds with those attending the prayer vigils, even as support gatherings spring up at Catholic churches elsewhere in Vietnam.

Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, in a pastoral letter sent to all Catholic priests, religious and faithful of the Archdiocese of Saigon, described the state-run media coverage of the vigils as “serving the privileges of the powerful, and of parties, not the common good of the nation.”

Long Le teaches Vietnamese studies at the University of Houston. He outlined the government’s approach to freedom of religion.

“Vietnam promotes the country’s religious traditions to draw foreign travelers to Vietnam’s cathedrals, temples and pagodas, while religious groups are still being persecuted,” he said.

Cardinal Pham Minh Man said in a statement: “There has been distorted or truncated information as in the land dispute at the former apostolic nunciature. Coming from our desire to actively contribute to the country’s stable and sustainable development, we would like to share these thoughts with our fellow Christians and all people of good will and sincere hearts.

“We firmly believe that when we together work to build the country on the basis of justice, truth and love, Vietnam our country will become more prosperous, bring happiness and wealth to everyone and construct a better world.”

Simon Roughneen is based in

Papua, New Guinea.

http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/16359/

In the country of ‘Uncle Ho’: Persecution of Catholics

By Lorenzo Fazzini
10/27/2008

Chiesa

If I were to tell you openly everything that they are doing against the Church, tomorrow they would arrest me and put me in prison
ROMA (Chiesa) – “You don’t know the communists. If I were to tell you openly everything that they are doing against the Church, tomorrow they would arrest me and put me in prison.” The Vietnamese bishop who is confiding in me shrugs unhappily. Because ending up in jail for one’s faith is a realistic option in a country in which the party is still a god, in the Soviet manner.

In more diplomatic terms, Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Manh, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, admits that “the situation is difficult.” His words express everything necessary to evoke the fiction of religious “freedom” that is crushing the Church in Vietnam. “The Church is free, but it does not have the right to be so,” the cardinal tells me as he opens the door to his residence near the cathedral of Notre Dame, right in the heart of downtown. In front of the bishop’s residents, on the façade of the former presidential palace of South Vietnam, there is a prominent propaganda poster, painted red. “The communist party, the government and people’s district 5 say: study and follow the example of Uncle Ho Chi Minh,” the writing says, with the father of his country smiling with his white goatee.

Catholics are 8 percent of the population in Vietnam, out of 84 million inhabitants, and the Church enjoys unquestioned social prestige even among non-Christians, but since the end of last summer, the tension has come to a breaking point. The objects of contention are some property, buildings, and structures that once belonged to the Church, confiscated by the Vietminh after they came to power in Hanoi, in the north, in 1954; these confiscations were repeated in 1975 in the south, following the occupation of Saigon, today known as Ho Chi Minh City. This is property that the Church is now asking be given back, from a country that began economic liberalization in 2006, entering the World Trade Organization, WTO.

For more than ten years – until the middle of the 1980’s – the communists kept the churches closed. The chapel of the University of Dalat, the second-largest academic center in the country, underwent a singular transformation: the spot where the cross used to be, on the bell tower, now displays a red star in the Soviet style. The seminaries have become state buildings. In Huê, the ancient imperial capital, the minor seminary where François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân studied – the future cardinal, imprisoned for 13 years and martyred for the faith – has become one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. The Carmelite convent of Hanoi – in the place where St. Thérèse of Lisieux dreamed of coming as a missionary – has been turned into a hospital. A church just a few steps from the Italian embassy in the capital has been turned into a warehouse.

In the face of brazen instances of corruption, in which property has been sold to state or private industries in exchange for substantial bribes for government officials, the Catholics have taken to the streets. They have taken to the streets to pray, as they explain at the Vietnamese bishops’ conference, which represents the bishops of the country’s 27 dioceses. The Church is demanding the restitution of property that it needs today more than ever, in order to accommodate a growing number of faithful: in Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are 9,000 adult baptisms each year. Believers and pastors are asking a simple question: why is it that in a Vietnam with eight percent economic growth per year, with investments by Japanese and “Yankee” companies, with skyscrapers springing up like mushrooms together with luxury hotels (in the coastal area of Nha Trang, the bishop’s residence is now surrounded by a new Hilton hotel to the right, and two futuristic towers to the left), the Church does not have the right to take back assets and property forcibly taken away from it thirty years ago?

In mid-August, the faithful of the Redemptorist parish of Thai Ha, in suburban Hanoi, began to protest peacefully. A state-run company wants to build a road across the 14,000 square meters of parish land, which the authorities falsely claim was given to the state by the Redemptorists in the 1970’s. The police stepped in, using cattle prods and tear gas against the elderly and children. Six people were arrested. Why? “Because they were praying peacefully. This violation of human rights is unacceptable, it should be written and spoken to the whole world.” Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, archbishop of Hanoi for just a little over three years, is not afraid to denounce what has taken place in Thai Ha, and not only that. Now he is in the eye of the hurricane, first for aligning himself with the Redemptorist parish, and then for leading the largest nonviolent protest demonstrations seen in Hanoi since 1954.

On September 21, 10,000 people gathered to pray in the courtyard of the former apostolic nunciature, next to the residence of the archbishop of Hanoi, in the central district of Hoàn Kiem. The protest was a response to the fact that after nine months of negotiations with the authorities in the capital, two days before, during the night, with no warning, bulldozers and construction workers escorted by the army and police came onto the property of the former apostolic delegation, to turn it into a public park.”They did not warn us, they did everything unilaterally, breaking off the dialogue we had carried forward for months,” is the complaint from Vietnamese Church leaders. Cardinal Pham Minh Manh Is turning up the heat: “I have publicly reiterated that the Church’s policy is based on dialogue founded on truth, justice, and charity. But this dialogue is difficult because that word, dialogue, does not even exist in the communist vocabulary, just as the term solidarity does not exist.”

Now the protest prayers have been suspended, just as the construction work has. But in the meantime, Archbishop Kiet has lived under special surveillance for several weeks. Going to visit him means passing among hidden audio recorders, cameras, and video cameras, placed around the bishop’s residence to identify anyone who approaches him. It was only after the first week of October that this 56-year-old bishop, who studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris and was the head of two dioceses in the north – where communist repression has reduced the faithful to just six thousand – was finally able to appear in public again. In order to attend the episcopal ordination of the new bishop of Bac Ninh, thirty kilometers north of the capital, the faithful nearly trampled him in showing their solidarity for his courageous action on behalf of the Church’s freedom.

In fact, what could seem to be a mere question of construction is, in reality, an act of repression against the Vhurch. Some of the authoritative voices of Vietnamese Catholicism are presenting compelling arguments on why this question – the restitution of confiscated property – is the line of resistance on which the future of Catholicism depends, in the country of Uncle Ho. “We have repeatedly asked the government, with written requests, for the restitution of our property, the documents of which we possess. On most of these occasions, the authorities have not even given us an answer. Sometimes they have said: we’ll see, we’re evaluating it,” explains Fr. Thomas Vu Quang Trung, provincial of the Jesuits in Thu Duc, on the outskirts of Saigon. “In 1975, after the expulsion of foreign religious, the reasoning of the government has been simple: there are too few of you for these buildings, we will take them to use for our people.”

Fr. Trung stretches his arms wide: “It might be acceptable that they could use some of our old properties, like our house in Dalat, for a public purpose, for schools or hospitals. But to turn it into a discotheque, as has happened with a building belonging to the sisters in Ho Chi Minh City, this cannot be! Our college in Hu has been turned into a supermarket. Our requests for restitution continue, in part because this is a question that concerns not only the Catholics, but all of the religious confessions, and even the ordinary people. The two disputes in the north – over the former nunciature in Hanoi, and the Redemptorist parish – do not concern only the ownership of land, but the manner in which justice is administered.”

Fr. John Nguyen Van Ty, a former superior of the Salesians and adviser to Cardinal Pham Minh Manh, is even more explicit: “The authorities are afraid of a domino effect: if they give ground in Hanoi, there is the risk that all of the religions will present their demands in the name of justice. This matter of Hanoi, according to some of them, could be the spark that burns everything down. Both the Catholics of Vietnam and those of the diaspora are united: we will not give up, this is a question of justice, not of religious freedom, but of law. It is well for the Vatican not to intervene in the question, considering it an affair of the local Church. Otherwise, this would be considered a merely confessional matter, and instead it is a question of justice. Of course, they are bringing heavy intimidation and threats against the archbishop, agitation by violent gangs, arrests of Catholics, daily insults against the Church in the media. The communists are afraid of the Catholics because they are the strongest organized religion in the entire country. But among the intellectuals, university professors, students, and journalists, the reality is becoming known, that communism oppresses, and they see the Church as a place of freedom.”

Fr. Francis Xavier Phan Long, head of the Franciscan province, explains that the Vietnamese bishops have done a very good job of “hammering in the nail” of private property, publicly asking the government to review the law – “obsolete and outdated,” according to the president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon – that recognizes the state alone as the owner of land.
“I am happy that for the first time, the bishops have taken a common stance on a concrete problem. Ordinarily, when they had their annual assembly, they released a final statement concerning very general questions,” Fr. Long explains in his office in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. “This time, in a new way, they have faced a burning question like that of Hanoi, insisting on a frank and direct dialogue with the authorities. We don’t know whether the law on private property will change, but we hope so. As for myself, I’ve already told the authorities one thing . . .”

What was that? He answers: “When the events in Hanoi began, the security minister summoned me to ask for my opinion about what was happening. I warned him that if the government takes the property of the Franciscans in the future, we will be ready to fight. Peacefully, since we are sons of St. Francis. But nevertheless, we would not be willing to give up the fight.”

http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=30234