Vietnam To Build Another Park On Land Claimed By Catholics

9-25-08 5:10 AM EDT

HANOI (AFP)–Communist Vietnam has stepped up the pressure in a long-simmering land dispute with the country’s Catholics by authorizing the construction of public parks on two key sites claimed by the Church.

Catholics have for months staged prayer vigils in the capital Hanoi, calling for the return of land they say was taken from them after the communists took power from the French in North Vietnam in 1954.

Vietnamese officials counter that the Church donated the land to the state more than half a century ago, a claim the Catholics have denied.

Last week, authorities stepped up their campaign by starting construction of a public park on the site of the former Vatican embassy in the heart of Hanoi’s old town, an area popular with foreign tourists.

Municipal authorities said Tuesday they would convert a second site claimed by the Catholics in Hanoi’s Dong Da district, site of tense protests in recent weeks, into a park, the communist newspaper Nhan Dan reported.

“We’ve told them we’ve launched a legal complaint to resolve this. There is no justification for building this park,” priest Vu Khoi Phung said.

Vietnam, 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.

All religion remains under state control, but Hanoi’s relations with the Catholic church had improved in recent years, leading to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung making a landmark visit to the Vatican in 2007.

But now, those relations are in jeopardy – priests allege physical abuse by security forces and ordinary citizens during their peaceful protests, and authorities have hit out at the Archbishop of Hanoi through the state press.

Father Nguyen Van Khai said police struck demonstrators with batons at a peaceful protest in August. Authorities have denied those claims.

On Sunday, protesters said bystanders berated them and spat on them – but police did nothing to stop the abuse.

“Since Sunday, there have been tales of violence every night,” Khai said.

Meanwhile, the state press has taken aim at Hanoi Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, with the security forces daily An Ninh Thu Do accusing him of “undermining national unity” and “humiliating” authorities.

State media reported he received a warning from the government not to ” organize illegal religious activities.” The priests of Dong Da district also received an official warning to toe the government line.

The archbishop, asked about the state of relations between Vietnam and the Church, said the improvements were purely “on the surface.”

“There have only been a few improvements that the government can’t prevent, like on the issue of ordination” of priests, he said.

In a sign of the tensions sparked by the long-simmering row over church land, a U.S. journalist for the Associated Press, or AP, was detained as he covered last Friday’s start of construction at the former Vatican embassy site.

Dozens of priests, nuns and seminary students had turned out to pray in silent protest as work began.

The AP has accused Vietnamese police of beating Ben Stocking, the agency’s Hanoi bureau chief, saying police took his camera and, when he asked for it back, hit him on the head with it and punched him.

Vietnam has denied the allegations and accused Stocking of breaking the law by taking photographs in an off-limits zone.

Vietnam To Build Another Park On Land Claimed By Catholics

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Vietnam summons US journalist over protest coverage

A small group of Catholics pray at a makeshift shrine (AFP)

A small group of Catholics pray at a makeshift shrine (AFP)

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam’s foreign ministry said Tuesday it had summoned a US journalist who says he was beaten by police over his coverage of ongoing protests by Catholics seeking a return of land seized in the 1950s.

The ministry confirmed press reports that it had summoned Associated Press journalist Ben Stocking on Monday, without specifying what was said or what additional action would be taken.

The AP has accused Vietnamese police of beating Stocking, the agency’s Hanoi bureau chief, as he tried to cover the start of construction Friday of a public park in Hanoi on land claimed by the Church, a move denounced by Catholics.

Police took Stocking’s camera and, when he asked for it back, hit him on the head with it and punched him, the AP said in a report datelined from Bangkok.

He then spent two and a half hours in a police station before being taken to a clinic where he received four stitches to close a head injury, the agency said.

Vietnam has denied the allegations, and accused Stocking of violating Vietnamese law by taking photographs in an off-limits zone.

The Vietnamese police daily, Cong An Nhan Dan, said Stocking had been summoned “to receive a warning,” adding that the ministry was contemplating further action.

The daily run by Vietnamese security forces, An Ninh Thu Do, carried the same report, adding that the foreign ministry had accused Stocking of slandering security forces by saying they had beaten him.

The US embassy in Vietnam said it had lodged a protest with the government over the incident at the construction site, where dozens of Catholic priests, monks and nuns had gathered.

On Tuesday, construction of the park continued behind security barriers covered with barbed wire. A few Catholics prayed at the site, but were left alone by security forces.

Source: AFP

Hanoi authorities order archbishop to halt vigils or face legal action in land dispute

Hanoi: Church must end vigils or face legal action

September 22, 2008

Workers give finishing touches to a public park on the ground of the former Vatican Embassy in central Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008. Communist authorities in Hanoi have threatened to take legal action against the citys archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet unless he immediately disbands illegal prayer vigils to demand the return of former church lands, including this site. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Tung Lam)

Workers give finishing touches to a public park on the ground of the former Vatican Embassy in central Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008. Communist authorities in Hanoi have threatened to take legal action against the city's archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet unless he immediately disbands illegal prayer vigils to demand the return of former church lands, including this site. (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Tung Lam)

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.

Hanoi authorities order archbishop to halt vigils or face legal action in land dispute

Hanoi: Church must end vigils or face legal action

Vietnamese gang ransacks Catholic chapel as police stand by

(Photo CNA)

(Photo CNA)

.- The simmering property disputes between the Catholic Church and the Vietnamese government were again aggravated on Sunday when a Hanoi official accused the Archbishop of Hanoi of inciting riots, making false allegations against the government, ridiculing the law, and disrespecting the nation.

Meanwhile late Sunday night, a street gang made a second attack upon a chapel at Thai Ha Church with no interference from nearby police. In what one priest called a “sort of terrorism” against the Catholic faithful, the gang ransacked the building, destroying statues and books while shouting threats against the lives of clergy and religious, Catholic faithful, and the Archbishop of Hanoi.

On Sunday evening state media reported a statement by Nguyen The Thao, the chairman of People’s Committee of Hanoi City. Father J.B. An Dang told CNA that the chairman criticized Archbishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, accusing the prelate’s Friday letter to the Vietnamese president and prime minister of conveying “distortional information.”

The chairman charged that the letter contained language “challenging the state,” specifically quoting the archbishop’s words “We have our rights to use all of our capabilities to protect our property.”

The property dispute concerns church land confiscated by the Vietnamese government decades ago, including the former papal nunciature and the lands surrounding the Redemptorists’ Thai Ha Church.

Chairman Thao accused the archbishop of treason for “smearing the state” and reported that the archbishop’s actions have “angered people of the capital.”

“These behaviors of offending the law and going against the benefits of state and nation must be punished severely in order to defend our regime, to protect the rights and legitimate benefits of the state and citizens,” the chairman continued.

On Sunday morning thousands of Catholics demonstrated in Hanoi, following a protest of more than 5,000 people the previous evening. The protests were renewed in response to the government’s decision to begin demolishing the former papal nunciature, claiming the land would be used for a library and a park.

The Sunday protest was the largest since the Communist takeover in 1954.

Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan of the Diocese of Lang Son and hundreds of priests led a march of more than ten thousand through the city to the nunciature where they set up an altar and statue of Our Lady in the street, according to Fr. An Dang.

The former papal nunciature site has been surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and a police cordon with dogs. Within the cordon, workers were pulling down the building. Outside the cordon, protestors sang and prayed.

On Friday the Associated Press Hanoi Bureau Chief Ben Stocking was detained by police while covering the demonstrations at the site. He left police custody with a gash in his head requiring four stitches, charging that police had choked, punched and bashed him with his own camera, the Associated Press reports.

A Vietnamese foreign ministry statement denied the reporter had been beaten while in police custody and tried to justify his detention.

“Stocking broke the Vietnamese law by deliberately taking pictures at a place where taking pictures was not allowed,” the statement said, the AP says. “Officers who were on duty to keep the public order warned him, but Mr. Stocking did not follow.”

Over at Thai Ha Church, a Redemptorist monastery which is also the center of a property dispute, a street gang attacked a chapel at the church from late Sunday night through early Monday morning.

According to local Redemptorist priests, the gang “yelled out slogans calling for the head of the Archbishop of Hanoi and Father Matthew Vu Khoi Phung, the religious superior of Thai Ha monastery.”

“Protestors who slept inside the chapel were evacuated into the monastery.”

The gang reportedly dispersed after they failed to gain entry to the monastery itself.

Nonetheless, the ruffians did take their fury out on Church property. “All statues of Our Lady where protestors pray every day were completely destroyed. They left pieces of the statues inside the yard of the monastery,” the Redemptorists at the monastery added.

More details were revealed in Father Matthew Vu Khoi Phung’s letter of complaint, which was released Monday and addressed to the People’s Committee of Hanoi City and police agencies of Hanoi and Dong Da district.

According to the letter, at 11:20 pm local time “a crowd in great numbers surrounded our monastery and our church… They yelled, smashed everything on their way, threw stones into our monastery, and shattered the gate of Saint Gerardo Chapel.”

“The gang yelled out slogans threatening to kill priests, religious, faithful and even our archbishop,” the monastery’s superior clergyman wrote.

Father Matthew Vu continued, saying “everything happened clearly in front of a large number of officials, police, security personnel, anti-riot police, and mobile police – those who are in charge of keeping security and safety in the region.

“But they did nothing to protect us,” he charged.

Father Vu also reported that on Sunday evening a gang of about 200 young men wearing the blue shirts of the Youth Communist League, came to Thai Ha Church “to disturb order, smear and spit on the face of our priests, religious and faithful.”

In this case, too, police did not intervene.

“This is a sort of terrorism against Catholic faithful and clergy taking place right at the center of the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Father Vu said.

The attack on Thai Ha Church was the second in the past week. At about 1 am local time on Friday, a gang attacked the altar used to celebrate open air Mass for the protestors near the church. The altar was ransacked and statues of the Virgin Mary were sprayed with used motor oil.

Father Joseph Nguyen of Hanoi reported that the former protest site has been surrounded by rolls of barbed wire.

“Police and their dogs attack anyone who comes to the site. This shows a clear signal from an unyielding government which has been determined to persecute rather than dialogue,” Father Nguyen said.

“Hanoi Catholics have been very upset with the assault; and they are really concerned for Thai Ha parishioners and their priests. Many pieces of the land in dispute were provided to high police officials. They were particularly enraged with Thai Ha Catholics since they were not able to sell their land, he added.

Vietnamese gang ransacks Catholic chapel as police stand by

Vietnam alleges beaten AP photographer broke law

Associated Press reporter Ben Stocking sits in a hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008. Stocking, APs Hanoi bureau chief, said he was punched, choked and hit over the head with a camera by police who detained him Friday while he covered a Catholic prayer vigil in the communist country. Stocking was released from police custody after about two and half hours and required four stitches on the back of his head. His camera was confiscated by police. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Associated Press reporter Ben Stocking sits in a hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008. Stocking, AP's Hanoi bureau chief, said he was punched, choked and hit over the head with a camera by police who detained him Friday while he covered a Catholic prayer vigil in the communist country. Stocking was released from police custody after about two and half hours and required four stitches on the back of his head. His camera was confiscated by police. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — The Vietnamese government said Saturday that an Associated Press journalist was violating its laws when he photographed a demonstration by land protesters in Hanoi, but sought to deny that he was beaten while in police custody.

AP Hanoi Chief of Bureau Ben Stocking emerged from a police station Friday with matted blood on his head and trousers, and a gash in his head requiring four stitches. He reported that he had been choked, punched and bashed with his own camera — the last assault opening a cut in his scalp that bled profusely. After his 2 1/2 hours in detention, he immediately had to seek treatment at a private clinic for the head injury.

Nevertheless, a foreign ministry statement disputed that there had been a beating.

“There was no beating of Mr. Ben Stocking by the Vietnamese security force,” read the statement attributed to Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung and posted on the Foreign Ministry Web site.

“Stocking broke the Vietnamese law by deliberately taking pictures at a place where taking pictures was not allowed,” the statement said. “Officers who were on duty to keep the public order warned him, but Mr. Stocking did not follow.”

The Associated Press stands by Stocking’s account that he was assaulted and said that there was no evidence that Stocking had broken any law. It has called the treatment of him “unacceptable” and an “egregious incident of police abuse.”

A video taken by an unknown cameraman and posted on YouTube showed the first part of Stocking’s detention.

Before he was escorted away by a plainclothes officer and put into a choke hold, the video shows Stocking calmly standing next to a police officer in broad daylight routinely photographing the protest, which involved a long-running dispute by Roman Catholics seeking the return of what had been church land.

He offers no resistance when asked to step away and is dressed in a dark shirt and clean white trousers.

(AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

(AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Photographs taken by the AP of him after his release a few hours later showed blood on his clothing and caking his neck and hair.

The U.S. Embassy filed a protest with the Foreign Ministry after the incident, and the State Department has asked the Vietnamese government what it would do to prevent such incidents in the future.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists in May cited the Vietnamese government for a “recent spate of arrests, detentions, and trials of journalists in Vietnam” that it said contradicted the country’s constitutional provision that “broadly protects press freedom and freedom of expression.”

The Associated Press: Vietnam alleges beaten AP photographer broke law

More information and video of arrest

Viet police ‘punched’ journalist

HANOI – MEDIA rights group Reporters without Borders has denounced the ‘arrest and mistreatment’ of an American journalist covering a protest in Vietnam.

The Associated Press accused Vietnamese police of punching its Hanoi bureau chief Ben Stocking in the face as he tried to cover a demonstration in the capital Hanoi on Friday.

Police took his camera and, when he asked for it back, hit him on the head with it and punched him, the AP said in a report from Bangkok published on the Internet.

He then spent two and a half hours in a police station before being taken to a clinic where he had four stitches to his head.

‘Reporters Without Borders condemns the arrest and mistreatment of Associated Press Hanoi bureau chief Ben Stocking by police while he was covering a peaceful demonstration by Vietnamese Catholics,’ the group said in a statement.

The AP has asked the Vietnamese authorities to apologise and return Mr Stocking’s camera, it said.

Vietnam denied the allegations.

‘Ben Stocking has violated Vietnam’s laws by intentionally trying to take photos at prohibited areas,’ said foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung.

‘It is totally untrue that Mr Ben Stocking was beaten by Vietnamese security forces.’

The US embassy in Vietnam said it had lodged a protest with the government over the incident, which took place during a protest by Catholic priests, monks and nuns against government construction work on land claimed by the Church.

‘We strongly object to any aggressive actions being taken against any individuals American or otherwise who is observing or participating in a peaceful gathering,’ an embassy spokeswoman told AFP.

‘We have protested the incident to the government.’ — AFP

Viet police ‘punched’ journalist

More information and video of arrest

Police detain, beat Associated Press reporter in Vietnam

New York, September 19, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the actions of Vietnamese police who assaulted Associated Press reporter Ben Stocking, after detaining him in Hanoi today. Police detained Stocking, AP’s Hanoi bureau chief, while he was covering a Catholic protest.

Anonymous video footage posted on YouTube shows two men obstructing Stocking as he tries to photograph a prayer vigil, which was staged in protest against city development of land claimed by the church. The men, one of whom wears a uniform, then lead the obviously unwilling journalist from the scene. The footage does not show the rest of the incident described in the report.

“This brutal police treatment of a working journalist is completely unwarranted,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Journalists should be free to report civil unrest in Vietnam without fear of violence from the authorities.”

In the AP story, Stocking says police confiscated his camera then punched and kicked him when he asked for it back. He also says they hit him in the head with his camera when he reached for it at the police station where he was later taken for questioning, opening a wound which required four stitches.

The AP said it will protest the incident and that the U.S. Embassy had filed a formal protest. Stocking was allowed to leave police custody with an embassy official to seek medical treatment, the report said.

It was not clear whether police obstructed other reporters at the protest site.

CPJ News Alert 2008

More information and video of arrest