Bulldozers stoke Hanoi land clash

By Nga Pham
BBC News

Another land dispute is raging at the Thai Ha parish of Hanoi

Another land dispute is raging at the Thai Ha parish of Hanoi

Tensions are high in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, after the authorities began construction work on land claimed by the Catholic church.

At dawn workers moved bulldozers past a police guard onto the disputed site at Nha Chung street.

Crowds of priests and believers soon gathered outside.

The site, which once served as the Vatican ambassador’s residence, was at the centre of a month-long protest by Hanoi Catholics earlier this year.

They only learned that their claim to the land had been turned down the previous afternoon, when the authorities announced via the state media that it would become a park.

A witness told BBC that the police had sealed off the whole area to prevent people getting in.

“But we could see from outside that they have started digging the ground and clearing the front of the residence,” she said.

Another witness said scores of riot policemen and sniffer dogs were mobilised and the whole scene looked “very chaotic”.

January protest

Thousands of Catholics held prayers at the site for the whole of January as they pressed their claim to the land. They say the land was borrowed from the Apostolic delegation of the Hanoi Diocese and it is time to give it back.

The crowds only dispersed after the Archbishop of Hanoi told them that the government had promised to return the land.

However, eight months on and the authorities have decided to transform the former residence into “a green tree park with flower beds and grass lawns”, reports the Ha Noi Moi newspaper.

“The event today caught us totally off-guard,” said Father Nguyen Van Khai, spokesman for Archbishop Ngo Quang Kiet, adding that a protest has been quickly formed to “ask for justice”.

The Archbishop himself has sent an urgent petition to the Vietnamese prime minister and president, asking them to intervene to stop “activities damaging to the Hanoi Diocese’s assets”.

Luu Van Dat, an official from the state-sponsored Fatherland Front, acknowledged that the ongoing dispute has escalated to a “serious” level.

He said: “The authorities should look into this matter. We have to be very careful in order to protect the rights [of citizens] but also to follow the law.”

Meanwhile, the church has called on all believers to join in protests, as well as pray for the Catholic claim to more disputed land in Hanoi, this time at Thai Ha. This second land grievance has been going on for more than a month, attracting hundreds of believers for prayer and protest every day.

The Vietnamese government maintains that all land belongs to the state and land claims should be submitted to the law courts for consideration.

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Bulldozers stoke Hanoi land clash

Vietnam: underground Buddhists show solidarity with Hanoi Catholics


A leader of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) has shown his support to Hanoi Catholics, in their quest to regain confiscated church property. He said the state-approved Buddhist leaders, who claimed the property was theirs, were: “tools of the Communist Party”.

Hanoi Catholics who earlier this month won a government promise to restore Church control of the building that once housed the apostolic nunciature, now face a serious complication, as a state-approved Buddhist group has claimed ownership of the land. In a letter sent to the prime minister of Vietnam – dated February 16 – Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) stated that any handover of property to the Catholic Church could not take place without the approval of the VBC, because he said, they were the authentic owners of the land. He argued that on the land in dispute there had been a pagoda named Bao Thien built in 1054. In 1883, “The French colonists seized and gave it to Bishop Puginier”, he stated.

However, in an interview with the BBC on 23 February, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, Commissioner for Social and Humanitarian Affairs of UBCV stated that the Catholic Church is actually the legal owner of the land. “The Catholic Church”, he said “legally owned the land before the VBD was established, and even before Hau was born”.

A state-run magazine published in 2001 states that the Bao Thien pagoda was destroyed in 1426 and that it was located in another place about 5km in the north of the nunciature. The plot of land on which the archbishop’s residence, the city’s Catholic cathedral, and St Joseph seminary are located had been vacant for a long time before 1883, when these building were constructed.

Thich Khong Tanh questions the political motive of the VBD leadership. “It is clear that the government is reluctant to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Catholics. Now, they want to use Buddhists to confront the Catholics for them”, he said urging Vietnam Buddhists not allow the government to do so.

He pointed out that the UBCV has no dealings with the Catholic Church, but added that two key UBCV institutions have also been seized by the government: the Vietnam Quoc Tu Pagoda and the Quang Duc Cultural Centre in Saigon.

The UBCV, which claims to lead 80% of Buddhists in Vietnam, has been outlawed since 1981, when the atheist government set up the state-controlled VBC. Like other Buddhist monks in UBCV, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh, 65,has spent 15 years in prison for his faith and is an outspoken advocacy of human rights.

Father Joseph Nguyen from Hanoi reported that some government officials have already criticized those involved in the letter of Thich Trung Hau. This development may drive Catholics to cooperate with the UBCV in future.

The state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church in Hanoi is going to host the upcoming international celebrations of the 2008 Vesak Festival ­ the Anniversary of the Birth of Buddha. Up til now, celebrations have taken place in Thailand. This year, Vietnam asked the Thai government to allow Hanoi to host the Vesak festival. This looks set to pose additional tensions in the country.

Holy row over land in Vietnam


The Vietnamese government is often embroiled in complex disputes over land rights.

But there is one particular row that is currently making the headlines – pitting the government against the country’s strong Catholic Church, and now the Buddhist community as well.

For the whole of January, thousands of Catholics gathered outside the building that served as the Vatican ambassador’s residence in Hanoi during the 1950s.

Braving the coldest winter for 40 years, they held vigils and prayers in one of the most visible gatherings in decades.

They had one request – that the site be returned to the Catholic Church.

The last Apostolic delegate was expelled by the Communists in 1959 and, since then, the residence has been used by the local Communist People’s Committee for various non-religious purposes, such as weddings, motorbike parking and a gymnasium.

Vietnam’s Buddhist community has now entered the standoff as well.

The Buddhist Sangha recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung saying that it, too, wanted ownership.

Angry reaction

The case has highlighted the complexity of land issues in Vietnam, especially where religions are involved.

Catholics hold a rally in Hanoi, Vietnam (25/01/2008)

Protests by Catholics in January alarmed the government

It has also caused considerable alarm to the authorities.

They demanded that the Catholic protesters stop their vigil, and some were prosecuted for “abusing religion to cause public disorder”.

In the end, the crowds only dispersed when the Archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, announced that the government had promised to give back the land.

But the issue has still not been resolved – and the land has yet to be returned.

Before the Catholics could show their discontent again, an official letter signed by the Venerable Thich Trung Hau, a leader of the official Buddhist Church, was sent to the prime minister.

Land use is one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Vietnam
Nguyen Duc Thinh,
Religious Affairs Committee

The letter said the disputed land was in fact the location of an ancient pagoda – one of the most important heritage sites of Vietnamese Buddhism – which was occupied by the French and given to the Catholic Church in the 19th Century.

It asked the government to “consider the Buddhist Sangha one of the main parties to consult before making any decision” regarding the site.

The letter has sparked an angry reaction from the Catholic community.

Online forums such as the VietCatholic website have been swamped with articles and messages saying that only the Catholic Church has rights to the land that they believe was “given to the Church by history”.

Some followers of the outlawed Vietnam Unified Buddhist Church also criticised the state-approved Buddhist Sangha’s claim, which they feared would only widen the division between the two religions.

Vietnamese Catholics pray in St Joseph's cathedral in Hanoi (January 2008)

Some are worried the dispute could exacerbate religious divisions

Religious issues have always been considered “sensitive” in this communist country.

But tricky as it is, the claim by the Buddhists could, in reality, help make the government’s task simpler.

“With both the Catholic and Buddhist Churches vying for the land, the government can now take the religious nuance off the issue, and treat it as a pure land issue,” said one leading cultural expert. “It could come down to basic documentation.”

Even straight land disputes, though, are not easy to solve.

Land clearance for industrial development, the confiscation of agricultural land and the lack of fair compensation for farmers have all fuelled a number of large-scale public protests in recent years.

“Land use is one of the most complex and sensitive issues in Vietnam,” said Nguyen Duc Thinh, a senior official from the government’s Religious Affairs Committee.

“Our policy is to examine all disputes, case by case, in accordance with the government’s land law,” he said.

Vietnamese law stipulates national ownership over all land, which means that organisations and individuals can only apply for the rights to use land, not own it.

Great value

Real estate prices in Vietnam have rocketed during the past decade.

In central Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, commercial space can sell for as high as in some of the most expensive cities in the world.

The disputed former Vatican ambassador’s residence, covering an area of one hectare, is no doubt of great financial value.

“We have come to recognise that the Hanoi Diocese does indeed need a premise for their activities,” said Nguyen Duc Thinh.

But he admitted that, like many land disputes, this one would take time to resolve.

Vietnam: government stalls over return of confiscated church property


Hanoi Catholics are become impatient with the progress in the promised return of confiscated church property. A month of demonstrations ended on 1 February, when Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi said that the government had agreed to return the old apostolic nuncio in Hanoi to the Church. That day, protesters removed a cross and tent from a piece of land near St Joseph’s Cathedral and went home.

However, instead of returning the building, public workers repainted the fence surrounding the site, strengthened the gates, and erected new panels with communist symbols and slogans reiterating that the building is state-owned. In addition, new security measures were imposed.

The state-run media also continue to broadcast and publish anti-Catholic stories.

Fr Paul Tran in Saigon said: “the orchestrated campaign of state-run media attacks on Catholics indicates things may be not as easy as expected.” He feared that “the government is going to put forward to Vietnamese Bishops more conditions in exchange to the requisition of the former nunciature”.

He pointed out that the Vietnamese government has closely followed China in its religious policies. It struggled to build a state-approved Church, known as the Vietnamese Patriotic Church, separated from the Holy See, but he said, this failed. “thanks to the fidelity of the Bishops, priests, religious and lay people to Christ and the Church.”

“When Catholics in Vietnam dare to stand up for justice, they get more popularity and the admiration of the oppressed which are more and more numerous in Vietnam”, said Sr Marie Nguyen.

Vietnam: authorities ban New Year Mass


Catholics in Ia Grai, a district in Central Highlands of Vietnam, could not have Mass on the first day of the Lunar New Year, known as Tet, after Bùi Minh Sen, the chairman of local People’s Committee, threatened legal action against the clergy and faithful.

The official said that Tat was not a Catholic festival and so they needed to apply for special permission for the Mass.

In their petitions, Ia Grai Catholics stated that for Vietnamese Catholics, it is a tradition to dedicate the first days of the new year to Christ and Virgin Mary through public gatherings where the congregation can attend Eucharist or other worship services, receive sacraments, exchange new year greetings and receive blessings from their priests.

Responding tothe petitions Sen insisted that has Tet was not a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, Mass on Tet would violates “the State law and Ordinance on Religion and Belief”. In the ordinance No 34/UBND-DTTG, dated 4th February, Sen ordered security forces to arrest anyone gathering to celebrate Tet according to Catholic rite.

The Church’s normal activities, involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives, are all subjected to approval by the civil authorities.

According to the “State law and Ordinance on Religion and Belief”, every year Catholic pastors need to submit to local authorities the list of Masses that they are going to celebrate during the coming year. Some of them may be disapproved. In these cases, the priest violates the law if he risks saying them – even with a smaller congregation.

With the introduction to open market, the gradual opening to the West, especially to the United States, beginning with the lifting of the US trade embargo in February 1994, the normalization of relations in July 1995, and the accession into WTO in November 2006; there has been a number of positive developments in religious liberty. Also, the situation of the Church in Vietnam was improved due in good part to the persistent efforts of the Holy See to maintain an official dialogue with the authorities, including a more or less annual visit to Vietnam of a Vatican delegation.

However, there can be no denying that religious freedom is still severely limited in today’s Vietnam. Local governments are still pursuing policies of religious persecution for the ethnic minorities, especially the Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and the Thai, Hmong and Muong in the Northern Mountains.

Vietnam: Catholics mark New Year with mass demonstration for church land


Three thousand Hanoi Catholics marched for justice at Thai Ha Redemptorists monastery on Saturday, while ten thousand Saigon Catholics showed their solidarity at a vigil in Hanoi.

After Saturday Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kit of Hanoi at the parish of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, the faithful joined those who have been protesting peacefully since 7 January to demand the return of their 14 acres of land held by the government.

Amid pouring rain, carrying a large cross, the Redemptorists led a procession to the property where the crowds chanted,and sang for hours in front of dozens of crosses and icons of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which are hanging on the fence that surrounds the confiscated property.

Throughout the day, hundreds vehicles were busy going back and forth carrying Catholics from dioceses of Bc Ninh, Hi Phòng, Namnh, Hà Tây, Vnh Yên to the site. Some had to travel up to 400km to join protestors.

Foreseeing the Saturday’s mass demonstration, security forces set up barriers to prevent a similar incident as in the former nunciature where protestors poured in and camped inside. However, the barriers were removed later. Large numbers of security police, in uniform and in plain-clothes, were on the site, mingling in the demonstrators’ ranks, taking photos and filming with video cameras.

In a message sent on 7 January to all the Redemptorists in the country, the provincial superior Fr Joseph Cao Dinh Tri said the local government has illegally confiscated land belonging to their monastery at Thai Ha, Hanoi and is supporting a construction project there. He said the Redemptorists had responded by gathering people to pray at the construction site, asking the government to respect fairness and put justice into practice. “I would earnestly implore all of you, the whole province of Vietnam, to be in solidarity with our brother Redemptorists in Hanoi, in order to pray for our common apostolate,” Fr Joseph said.

Thousands of parishioners have been surrounding church bulletin boards to see images and read articles relating to the protests in Hanoi. There is no independent, privately-run media in Vietnam and the state media has been largely silent about the recent protests. Catholics in Vietnam have been getting the news mostly through the Internet and church bulletin boards.

Catholics in Vietnam still missing land, protests continue


.- Although the Vietnamese government has agreed to return the Nunciature to the Archdiocese of Hanoi, parishioners from Our Mother of Perpetual Help insist that the government is still holding 14 acres of land belonging to parish. In protest, hundreds of the dispossessed Catholics marched to the site on Ash Wednesday.

The weather did not deter the demonstrators who chanted, and sang for hours in front of dozens of crosses and icons of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which are hanging on the fence that surrounds the confiscated property.

According to the Redemptorists who run the parish, they originally purchased 15 acres of land in 1928, with plans to construct a convent and church.

In 1954, the Communist government took control of northern Vietnam and jailed or deported most of Redemptorists. This left Fr. Joseph Vu Ngoc Bich to run the church by himself. Despite Fr. Vu’s persistent protests, local authorities gradually seized the parish’s land one section at a time. Consequently, the plot of land was reduced from 15 acres to its present-day size of little more than half an acre.

For more than ten years, Redemptorists in Vietnam have petitioned the government asking for the return of their land, but their pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

The government upped the ante at the beginning of this year by allowing construction on the Chiến Thắng sewing company to commence. The confiscated church property soon was surrounded by a fence and the presence of security officials.

The new construction on the land commandeered from the parish led a crowd of local Catholics to gather on the afternoon of January 7 in protest. Local authorities arrived on the scene and promised that the construction work would end. However, the next day the Hanoi People’s Committee issued an official order authorizing the company in question to continue its work.

Protestors have been gathering at the work site for over a month to prevent any further construction by the state-run company.

Since February 7 marks the Lunar New Year—called Tet in Vietnam—local government officials asked the Redemptorists to disperse the demonstrators who have been camped out at the site and send them home to prepare for Tet. The priests had in fact already told the people to leave out of concern for their health, given the cold rain and low temperature, but none of them were willing to leave.

“I keep telling my children that I have to stay here to protect Church land,” one a woman said. “People who want to tell me happy New Year can come here and see me. I will not go home.”

Vietnam government promises to return disputed building


Vietnamese government officials, meeting earlier this week with leaders of Hanoi’s Catholic Church, said they would return the former Vatican embassy to the church if it stops the demonstrations that have occupied the site in recent weeks, according to a priest who attended the session.
Father Peter Thanh, a priest from the diocese of Saigon, said Deputy Minister of Public Security Nguyen Van Huong promised to resolve the issue ”step by step,” ending with the transfer of the property to the church.
In some of the largest open protests ever seen in Communist Vietnam, hundreds of Catholic clergy and their followers have staged repeated vigils at the site since Dec. 18. Church leaders say the building, which housed the Vatican’s embassy beginning in 1950, was illegally confiscated from the Vietnamese Catholic Church, and have been asking for its return for three years.
The building is in the center of Hanoi tourist district, where land prices run well over $1,000 per square meter.

Vietnam: Catholics called to help poor celebrate Tet in dignity


Catholics in Vietnam observe Ash Wednesday today, on the eve of their lunar New Year, known as Tet. Bishops have encouraged them to help the poor celebrate this festival as a practical gesture of almsgiving in the first day of the Lent season.

The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew 8.5 percent in 2007. However, the poverty rate still stands at 14.7 percent. Also, natural disasters including typhoons and flooding killed thousands people and injured thousands others. The country was also facing foot and mouth disease, which killed thousands of animals.

Church leaders concern that so many people in Vietnam have to suffer more in Tet when everything costs much more than normal. They fear that some even do not have enough food for their daily meals.

In Hai Phong, Fr John Baptist Vu Van Kien reported that the diocese had launched a charity plan to give 6,000 kg of rice to poor families in the province. Charity groups in parishes helped distribute in the metro and in the rural areas.

“The amount of rice to be distributed to each family was not a whole lot”, said Vincent Kien from Hai Phong, “but by sharing this gift with the poor, the underprivileged, the bishop and his priests had brought warmth to their hearts as much as food to their stomachs, especially during the last days of the lunar new year when the weather is cold and families are gathering to celebrate the coming of a new year.”

Bishop Joseph Vu Van Thien of Hai Phong, sent gifts to leprosy patients at Chi Linh Leprosarium in Hai Duong province during the upcoming Tet festival. Also, “Recycle for Humanity”, a volunteer group, working actively in the diocese, will bring gifts to HIV patients, poor families and children who are attending classes funded and operated by the diocese.

It has become a tradition in the diocese that everyone, every family is trying to do good deeds to others as a way to welcome the New Year, bringing nas much happiness and warmth to the poor and the sick as possible.

In Thai Binh diocese, Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang has urges his faithful to promote social and charitable works in the Tet festival. “Every parish”, he said “would participate in this project by observing and making a list of families in need. Subsequently a visit to these families will be made in order to provide them with material and or spiritual assistance they truly need. Also being highly encouraged is the participation in movements beneficial to social welfare such as building houses for the needy, aiding the flood victims, visiting patients with HIV”.

Vietnam Catholics end vigils over disputed land


HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnamese Catholics have ended more than a month of protests in Hanoi aimed at pressing the Communist government for the return of church land seized 50 years ago.

After talks between church and government officials, the protesters removed on Friday a cross and tents from a one hectare (2.5-acre) piece of mostly-vacant land about a block from St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Workers on Saturday were repainting a fence surrounding the site, which once housed the Vatican embassy before the Communists ended French colonial rule in 1954.

Catholics had also gathered in two other places in the capital, demanding return of a presbytery and land that has been used for a textile factory they say also belonged to the church.

The vigils began on December 18 and attracted more than 1,000 people at times, despite Hanoi authorities telling church leaders the activities were illegal and should be stopped.

After meeting with Hanoi’s People’s Committee this week, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet said parishioners had agreed to dismantle the cross and tents while authorities closed a noodle shop on the site near the cathedral.

The church had argued no business should be conducted on the site while it was in dispute.

“This first step is appropriate as now it is very cold and you, brothers and sisters, will need to prepare for Tet,” Kiet said referring to the Lunar New Year holiday in a letter posted on the Web site http://www.vietcatholic.net.

Hanoi police are investigating some of the protesters for “destroying state property and causing disorder,” state-owned newspapers reported this week.

Religion remains under state supervision in the mostly Buddhist country and there are about six million Catholics among its 85 million people.

Public displays of criticism or disagreement with the ruling Communist Party are rare, but over the past decade, peasant farmers have also challenged the government over land use.

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