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.