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.

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.”

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.

Crackdown in Hanoi


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.

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

By Lorenzo Fazzini


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.”

Vietnamese Catholics respond to Hanoi official’s call for archbishop’s transfer

Hanoi, Oct 18, 2008 / 01:39 pm (CNA).- The ongoing property dispute between the Catholic Church in Vietnam and government officials has continued with the Chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi asserting that the Archbishop of Hanoi must be transferred.

The chairman, who could become Vietnam’s next prime minister, claimed the prelate lacks a “good reputation” and credibility with the faithful. Catholic leaders quickly responded by insisting that the archbishop is “an outstanding leader of the Church in Vietnam.”

Over the past year, Catholic clergy and laity have sought the return of church properties confiscated by communist government officials. Catholic protesters have faced harassment and attacks by government-backed gangs, while an Associated Press reporter was detained and beaten by police when he tried to report on a September demonstration held at the former papal nunciature.

Nguyen The Thao, Chairman of the People’s Committee of Hanoi, on Wednesday met with foreign diplomats to defend the attacks on the Church and to probe their reactions on further potentially extreme actions, J.B. An Dang tells CNA.

Speaking to ambassadors, deputy ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions, Chairman Thao claimed that the main reason behind the property disputes in Hanoi was “a poor awareness of the law amongst the Catholic demonstrators.”

Attacking the Catholic leadership, he added: “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, intentionally breaking the law and acting contrary to the interests of both the nation and the Church.”

According to J.B. An Dang, the Saigon Liberated newspaper incorrectly reported that foreign diplomats thanked the chairman for the information and “highly praised” the Committee’s solution for land disputes with the Church.

Father John Nguyen from Hanoi criticized the Saigon Liberated article, saying:

“No one from a civilized society can ‘highly praise’ overt persecutions against peaceful believers. You can be assured that had a diplomat spoken about something in favor of this government’s deeds then surely his name would be on all state media no later than the next day.”

“The obvious question is why, to implement such a good solution, the Vietnamese government had to deploy hundreds of police armed to the teeth, aided by professionally trained dogs; and was prepared to attack anyone who dared to disclose their plot to the outside world, even an American reporter?”

According to the Saigon Liberated, at his meeting with the foreign diplomats Chairman Thao spoke ill of Archbishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet.

“Hanoi Archbishop must be transferred out of Hanoi as he has neither a good reputation nor creditability with the city’s citizens, including Catholic faithful,” the chairman reportedly said.

J.B. An Dang reports that the chairman’s statement was a “blatant lie” in the view of Father Pascal Nguyen Ngoc Tinh, a Franciscan from Saigon.

The priest said that for Catholics and many non-Catholics the archbishop is “an outstanding leader of the Church in Vietnam.”

“What is the real reason underneath this extremely begrudging attitude toward the prelate?” he asked.

He suggested the reason for the chairman’s attitude was the archbishop’s comments at a September 20 meeting with the Hanoi People’s Committee. There the archbishop had insisted that religious freedom is a “legal right, not a privilege,” according to the priest.

“In my opinion, the very reason that made the communists jump up crazily, as if they had been electrically shocked, is that the prelate has the nerve to cry out for rights. When I stand up to demand my rights, it means my rights have been taken away. They have been deprived from me,” he concluded.

Father John Nguyen has expressed serious concern that the Archbishop of Hanoi will face more problems from Chairman Thao in the future.

“Thao has been seen as a shining star in Vietnam’s political theatre,” he explained, according to J.B. An Dang’s report to CNA.

“The Politburo has explicitly appreciated his tough attitude and actions against Catholics. Many members of the Party’s Central Committee had no hesitation to throw their full support behind him.

“Recently, there have been rumors that he is going to replace the Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung who has been seen as a poor choice for that post. The fact that he had greeted foreign diplomats confirmed these rumors. In Vietnam’s diplomatic protocol, it’s very unusual for a mayor to meet with foreign diplomats.”

Hanoi’s path to property crosses Catholics

By Andrew Symon

Are hardliners in Vietnam’s Communist Party-led government now calling the tune? That is one interpretation for the recent crackdown on large-scale demonstrations led by Vietnamese Catholics who have demanded a return of former church property nationalized in Hanoi when the communists first took power over 50 years ago.

Religious protesters have been beaten, arrested and harassed, according to a variety of news agency reports. The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch has described it as the harshest crackdown on Vietnam’s Catholics in decades. Catholic organizations outside of the country have joined the criticism, although the Vatican has not yet commented publicly.

The crackdown is in marked contrast to the authorities’ tolerant and restrained approach towards similar vigils held in December and January by Catholic parishioners seeking the return of disputed properties, including the site of the former Vatican diplomatic mission near the St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s city center and the nearby Thai Ha church and monastery.

Earlier vigils came to a peaceful end when the Vatican in Rome urged Vietnam’s Catholics to avoid provoking confrontation, while government authorities promised to discuss the return of the properties. But tensions have mounted between hardliners and moderates inside Vietnam’s leadership, particularly over how to handle rising inflationary pressures in the economy and the overall economic reform direction.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, viewed widely as a moderate, has led Vietnam’s rapid economic reform drive and has responded to various foreign investor calls to move towards a more rules-based economic system, including over property rights. Dung has recently come under conservative criticism for moving too quickly and a hardline camp has played on his previous softly-softly approach in handling earlier Catholic protests as evidence he is both soft on security and over-eager to bow to foreign demands.

Now, the government’s newly adopted hardline approach is stoking instability. A new round of Catholic protests began in August, beginning with 100 or less devotees taking part in prayer vigils, in response to the failure of any advance in the discussions with the local government authorities over the contested holy sites. In late August, police arrested at least eight peaceful demonstrators on the grounds of the Thai Ha Church of the Redemptorist monastery, which was founded in the 18th century to assist the urban poor. News reports said that police beat parishioners with electric batons to disperse a a subsequent vigil calling for the release of those detained.

On September 19, in a clear statement of the government’s hardening position, construction workers backed by hundreds of police officers and clearance crews bulldozed the former nunciature’s perimeter walls and old gardens – but left the colonial residence of the former delegate of the pope – to make way for a park and public library.

An Associated Press reporter was beaten by police after being arrested for taking photos of the building work and his camera was confiscated.

Local Hanoi authorities have also declared their intention to turn the greater 17,000-square-meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property into a public park and have offered the Church the use of three alternative properties for religious purposes. The offers have been declined, however. By September 21, as many as 10,000 devotees stood off against the authorities.

That same evening hundreds of men, some in Communist Youth uniforms, according to reports, attacked Thai Ha Church, harassing and even spitting on priests and their parishioners. Police reportedly watched idly as the mob harassed parishioners, destroyed an iron cross erected in the nunciature’s garden and removed a sacred statue of the Pieta.

On the same day, more than 5,000 Catholics gathered for a prayer vigil in southern Ho Chi Minh City to show their support for the parishioners in northern Hanoi.

Four days later, state-owned buses delivered a pro-government mob that attacked Catholic demonstrators at the site of the nunciature and denounced Hanoi’s Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. Kiet, who has publicly defended the rights of the Catholic protesters and visited the families of arrested parishioners, now faces government restrictions on his movements. Other clerics and parishioners have been summoned for interrogations.

Atheist propaganda
In the state-controlled media allegations have been made that Kiet “has committed illegal and unpatriotic acts” by inciting the protests and represented a threat “to public safety and national unity”. Underscoring the government’s harder line, authorities have apparently taken extreme propaganda measures by publishing criticisms of Kiet in children’s magazines. The current issue of Thieu Nien Tien Phong (Pioneer Children) magazine, produced for primary school children, includes an article by a Catholic primary student who writes that she lost her Catholic belief due to Kiet’s words and behavior.

Kiet has in response criticized the Vietnamese government’s monopoly control over 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 was reported saying in religious-oriented publications.

After the Hanoi People’s Committee, a governmental authority answerable to the Communist Party, recommended punishing Kiet and four other priests for inciting riots and disrespecting the nation, among other charges, the Vietnam Conference of Bishops issued public statements in defense of the clergymen and raised concerns about religious freedom and the right to property.

For their part, government officials have repeatedly claimed that the Church gave them the land decades ago, but Catholics dispute that claim. Supporters of the government’s policy, writing in the local state-controlled press, point out that the nunciature’s land was before the Church’s construction occupied by the Bao Thien pagoda. The shrine was destroyed in 1886 by “French imperialists” to build a church, seminary and building for the Vatican’s representative to Vietnam, the commentators wrote.

After the end of French rule in 1954, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, took over management of the land. Under Vietnamese law, there is no privately held property and land is managed by the state for all of the people. The state may decide to allocate land for different uses, including for religions such as the Catholic Church.

Premier Dung was reported in the state-run Vietnamese News Agency in early October saying that the Catholic protesters and Archbishop Kiet had overstepped the mark and were often acting illegally. At a meeting with the Vietnam Episcopal Council after the conclusion of its second annual conference, Dung said that Vietnam’s constitution and current laws state clearly that land belongs to the people under the unified management of the state.

He also said that the allocation of land to any organization for religious purposes had to be performed in line with the law and cited a number of localities, including Ho Chi Minh City, which has allocated land to the municipal bishopric to build a center serving its activities, where this policy has been successfully implemented.

Others included the central highlands province of Dac Lac, where more than 11,000 square meters of land were handed over to the Buon Ma Thuot bishopric, the central city of Danang’s allotment of 9,000 square meters of land to the Danang bishopric, and the central province of Quang Tri’s allocation of over 15 hectares of land to the La Vang parish.

Dung said Kiet had demonstrated a lack of respect and cooperation with the Hanoi administration and that his words “challenged the state, hurt the nation, and disregarded the country’s position and the status of Vietnamese citizens in their interrelation with the world”.

“If those activities do not come to an end, they will have an adverse impact on the good ties between the State and the Church and the relationship between Vietnam and the Vatican, which has been progressing positively,” Dung said.

He also said the government was willing to have dialogue with the Catholics and not use force to settle the issues over the two properties. In the subtext, Dung’s remarks spoke to the still-unreformed nature of property ownership in Vietnam’s otherwise fast transformation from a communist to market-based economy.

There are reports that land grievances are escalating throughout the country and it is thought that conservatives in the Communist Party leadership believe that if the Catholics are successful in challenging the state’s control over their property, it could unleash an unmanageable spate of similar demands across the country.

It’s still unclear what the recent crackdown on Catholics means for the country’s overall economic reform direction. What seems clearer is that Dung has acquiesced to conservative demands to take a tougher position exerting the state’s command over land ownership and in the process raises disturbing new fears of a wider crackdown on dissent and religion.

Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based writer and a frequent visitor to Vietnam. He can be reached on

Vietnam must free Catholics: Rights group

AFP Published:Oct 05, 2008

Hanoi – Communist Vietnam should free Catholics arrested for holding peaceful prayer vigils and hold police and others accountable for attacking parishioners, a US-based human rights group said.

At least eight Hanoi parishioners had been arrested since mid-August when Catholics started their latest round of protests for the return of church lands confiscated by the state since the 1950s, said Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The group said authorities had used tear gas and electric batons to disband protesters and that “hundreds of unidentified thugs, some in the blue shirts of the Communist Youth League” had harassed and spat at parishioners.

“This is the harshest crackdown on Catholics in Vietnam in decades,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“Sadly, religious repression and violent crackdowns by the Vietnamese authorities against peaceful protesters are nothing new.”

The New York-based group also urged the government “to end the harassment, threats and restrictions on the movement of the Archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet,” who has been at the centre of the protests.

The government was running “an intense smear campaign against Archbishop Kiet” in the state-controlled media, accusing him of illegal and unpatriotic acts by instigating the prayer vigils, HRW said.

The government has in recent weeks sought to end the disputes by building public parks at the two disputed Hanoi sites, the Vatican’s former embassy near Hanoi’s main St. Joseph Cathedral, and the Thai Ha Redemptorist church.

Last week Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met Catholic bishops and warned them the government would not tolerate the mass vigils in which Catholics had broken the law and illegally entered the disputed properties.

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.

Religious activity remains under state control, but Hanoi’s relations with the Catholic Church had improved, leading to Dung making a landmark visit to the Vatican in 2007, before the recent wave of protests.

HRW’s Pearson said: “The government should support religious tolerance and peaceful assembly instead of using the media to vilify religious leaders and paint peaceful religious protesters as a menace to the public.”
The Times – Vietnam must free Catholics: Rights group

Group: Vietnam should release Catholics

NEW YORK, Oct. 4 (UPI) — The Human Rights Watch in New York said Saturday the Vietnamese government should release a group of imprisoned Roman Catholics.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Elaine Pearson alleged in a news release that the Catholic prisoners were specifically targeted for their religious beliefs.

She accused the Vietnamese government of targeting peaceful prayer vigils in cities such as Hanoi and arresting at least 20 people during an Aug. 28 event.

Similar events allegedly were disrupted by tear gas attacks by authorities or large groups of men who harassed Catholic parishioners and priests, Pearson added.

“This is the harshest crackdown on Catholics in Vietnam in decades,” Pearson alleged. “Sadly, religious repression and violent crackdowns by the Vietnamese authorities against peaceful protesters are nothing new.”

“The government should support religious tolerance and peaceful assembly instead of using the media to vilify religious leaders and paint peaceful religious protesters as a menace to the public.”

Group: Vietnam should release Catholics –


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