Catholic-Communist Land Fight in Vietnam 

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Quietly, Vietnam’s Catholic Church is challenging the nation’s government more boldly than it ever has since the communists took power over five decades ago.

For several weeks, church leaders and their followers in Hanoi have been gathering daily to pray in front of the old Vatican embassy, one of many church properties taken over by the government after 1954.

The church wants the government to hand back the 2.5-acre lot in central Hanoi, where such land is worth millions of dollars.

“It is a tragedy for us that our holy land was taken away,” said Father Nguyen Khac Que, a member of the Hanoi diocese who helped organize the prayer vigils.

Although the dispute could raise church-state tensions, it also offers dramatic testimony to how much church-state relations have improved in Vietnam recently.

Had church leaders dared to make such a public challenge just five years ago, police would almost certainly have jailed them.

“There is now a sufficient feeling of comfort on both sides that the church feels it can air its grievances publicly and the state feels it can tolerate them,” said Peter Hansen of the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, Australia.

The matter could come to a head Friday, when the church plans to hold its biggest vigil yet, despite requests from city officials to stop the gatherings.

Hanoi city officials, who control the property, did not respond to requests for interviews.

Church officials say they have documents showing the land belongs to the diocese. But Hanoi officials maintain a former priest voluntarily turned the property over to the government in 1960, according to Duong Ngoc Tan of Vietnam’s national Committee for Religious Affairs.

“This whole matter of returning land is very complicated,” Tan said.

After the revolution, property was confiscated not just from the church but from wealthy landowners and capitalists. It was then used by the government or turned over to others who have held it for decades.

Church leaders are careful to refer to the gatherings as prayer vigils rather than demonstrations — a loaded word in a country where public protests are generally forbidden.

They are holding vigils at three churches, but the focal point is St. Joseph’s — the largest cathedral in Hanoi — which routinely draws up to 2,000 people for services that spill into the courtyard.

During the vigils, hundreds of parishioners at a time gather nearby in front of the old Vatican Embassy, a French-style villa now used as a youth sports center.

During their first vigil, just before Christmas, parishioners wheeled a Virgin Mary statue into the villa, pushing her in a cyclo, a traditional Vietnamese rickshaw. The statue had once been located next to the old embassy but it was later relocated to the nearby cathedral.

Local authorities have since locked the gate, which parishioners have adorned with white roses. Now the faithful light candles and gather on the sidewalk, occasionally blocking traffic on the narrow street.

On a recent Sunday, a priest carrying a cross led about 500 people to the site, where they prayed, chanted and sang.

There were no uniformed police in sight.

“I could never have imagined doing something like this in the past,” said Pham Vu Thuc, 51, a lifelong member of St. Joseph’s.

“Things have changed a lot since we’ve become more connected with the outside world,” she said. “We have the Internet, we’ve joined the World Trade Organization. Now Vietnam has to follow the rules of the international community.”

While relations have improved between the church and the national government, Father Que said, conflicts still arise with local governments.

“They once put a discotheque right next to the diocese headquarters,” Que said.

Vietnam’s Catholic Church, which counts 6 million members, was established by missionaries and grew during French colonial rule in Vietnam. It is the second-largest faith in predominantly Buddhist Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Catholic Church has always been regarded with suspicion because of its close relations with the French government and the former South Vietnamese government, which fought a U.S.-backed war against the communists.

For years, Vietnamese Catholics faced persecution, finding it difficult to get jobs or enter universities. Hundreds of thousands fled to southern Vietnam.

Many others stayed behind, and their churches remained open. But the government restricted their activities and took over property next to sanctuaries, including seminaries, schools and medical clinics.

Over time, church-state relations have begun to thaw. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Pope last year, and the two sides have considered restoring diplomatic relations.

The Vietnamese government also approved a new law on religion several years ago that made it easier for unrecognized Protestant faiths to register with the government.

All this has emboldened Catholic leaders.

“We can speak out now,” said Father Que. “Things are more democratic now.”

Besides, the dispute in Hanoi is not about ideology, Que said. “This is a dispute over valuable land.”

China, Vietnam clash over lonely islands

Vietnam and China have plunged into a new war of words over Asia’s most hotly contested pieces of real estate, the Spratly Islands.

For the second week in a row, hundreds of Vietnamese nationalists have been holding rare public demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Shouting anti-Chinese slogans and singing patriotic songs, they accuse China of staging a creeping invasion of the Spratlys, which have become one of Asia’s major potential flashpoints.

Most of the islands are low-lying coral reefs and rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea, home to little more than a few dozen seabirds. Some of them are so small they are covered at high tide.

Yet the island chain is strategically located in the centre of one of Asia’s largest potential reservoirs for oil and natural gas, and surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

Six nations, including China, have staked overlapping claims to the 200 islands, rocks and reefs that make up the chain.

Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have claims to some of the islands, while China claims sovereignty over them all. Taiwan’s claim is similar to China’s.

There have been numerous military skirmishes in the past 30 years to reinforce the conflicting claims, the most serious in 1976, when China invaded and captured a nearby island chain, the Paracel Islands, from Vietnam.

Twelve years later, the two countries clashed again as their navies waged a brief battle off Johnson Reef in the Spratlys. Several Vietnamese boats were sunk and more than 70 sailors died.

Since then, Beijing and Hanoi have tried to ease tensions by promising to seek a diplomatic solution.

But China has continued to build military installations on some of the islands and reefs, insisting they are only shelters for Chinese fishermen.

More recently, the legislature in Beijing ratified a plan to manage the Paracels and Spratlys as a new administrative district of Hainan province, turning the islands into a new “county-level city” called Sansha.

That has infuriated Vietnam, which tried last spring to let drilling and pipeline rights for a US$2-billion gas field to energy giant BP in an area of the Spratlys off its southern coast.

When Beijing accused Hanoi of infringing Chinese territory, the company decided to halt exploration work.

Still, Vietnam insists many of the Spratly Islands lie within the bounds of its sovereignty and it resents China’s claims, which are backed by an assertive new nationalism and one of its biggest military spending sprees ever.

Regional rivalries take on an added geopolitical importance because the islands straddle Asia’s most vital seal lanes.

About 25% of world shipping passes through the region, carrying Middle East oil to Japan and the western United States.

Washington’s alliances and defence agreements with countries in the region could drag the United States into a confrontation with China if the conflict over the Spratlys turns violent.

That concerns Washington, because in 1995 the U.S. Naval War College ran a series of computer war games simulating a conflict with China over the South China Sea, and in each case China won.

Since then, Beijing has spent billions modernizing and expanding its navy with an eye to a possible confrontation in the Spratlys.

China has filled a virtual power vacuum in the South China Sea after the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the former Soviet Union’s navy from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the U.S. withdrawal from Subic Bay in the Philippines.

As if to assert that fact, China infuriated Vietnam by staging a naval exercise in the South China Sea in November near the Paracels.

Now, Beijing is accusing Vietnam of threatening relations between the two countries by permitting street demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy for two weekends in a row.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry insists the protests were spontaneous and quickly ended by police.

But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “We are highly concerned over the matter. We hope the Vietnamese government will take a responsible attitude and effective measures to stop this and prevent bilateral ties from being hurt.”


Vietnamese in second anti-China rally over disputed islands,21985,22932703-5005961,00.html

HUNDREDS of Vietnamese protesters again rallied peacefully against Beijing’s claims to two disputed South China Sea island chains, but were kept away by police from Chinese diplomatic missions.

About 300 demonstrators in the capital Hanoi and 100 in the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City were prevented from rallying outside the embassy and consulate of Vietnam’s northern neighbour and communist ally by hundreds of police.

In Hanoi, security forces cordoned off the Lenin Park area near the embassy, where demonstrators one week earlier staged a rare hour-long protest over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos that earned Hanoi a sharp rebuke from Beijing.

Instead, the groups of protesters, most of them students, marched through the centre of the capital, shouting anti-Chinese slogans and singing patriotic songs in the latest display of anger over the long-simmering dispute.

Most of the demonstrators wore identical T-shirts with the red-and-gold Vietnamese flag, a map of Vietnam that included the islands, and the words “China hegemony jeopardises Asia” and “Beware of the invasion”.

Another banner read: “We are small but not reconciled to China’s invasion.”

In Ho Chi Minh City around 100 student demonstrators were rallying at a park near the Chinese consulate, holding signs that read “Hands off Vietnam”, “Vietnam: United We Stand” and “Stop Chinese Expansion”.

The two archipelagos, considered strategic outposts in the South China Sea, have potential oil and gas reserves and rich fishing grounds.

The disputes stir strong passions in Vietnam, which remembers a millennium of Chinese rule and fought its last border war with China in 1979.

The Spratlys, more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, are claimed in full or part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The Paracels – which Chinese troops took from South Vietnamese forces in 1974 – are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

The protest started December 9 after China set up a county level government unit which covers 2.6 million square kilometres, mostly ocean, including the disputed isles.

That rally, which supported Vietnam’s official stance, was tolerated by police for about one hour, a rarity in Vietnam, where public protests are usually suppressed quickly.

China protested the demonstration two days later.

“We are highly concerned over the matter,” said foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang at the time.

“We hope the Vietnamese Government will take a responsible attitude and effective measures to stop this and prevent bilateral ties from being hurt.”

China chides Vietnam over island dispute

BEIJING (Reuters) – China chided its neighbour Vietnam on Tuesday, saying the Southeast Asian country was straining ties by asserting claims to a chain of islands that may be rich in oil.

Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the consulate in Ho Chi Minh city over the weekend, proclaiming that the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands belonged to their country.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said the protests were spontaneous and quickly ended by officials, the Vietnam News Agency reported. But China’s Foreign Ministry responded with a warning that the quarrel could harm ties.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands,” ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news conference. He said China and Vietnam had previously agreed to settle the dispute through negotiations.

“Recently in Vietnam there have been developments unfavourable to friendly ties between China and Vietnam, and we are highly concerned.”

Qin said Hanoi had to take steps to “prevent further developments and avoid harming bilateral relations”.

Territorial disputes between the two Communist neighbours have a history of turning ugly.

The Spratly Islands, a string of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea suspected of spanning large oil and gas deposits, are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

China seized the Paracel Islands, a set of islets just north of the Spratly group, in 1974 and has occupied them since despite Vietnamese protests.

In June, BP Plc halted plans to conduct exploration work off the southern Vietnamese coast, citing the territorial tensions.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Vietnam was stirring up trouble by agreeing with BP and its partners to develop the area.

Vietnam has long been wary of its bigger Asian neighbour and in 1979 the two countries fought a border war.

In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle near one of the Spratly Island reefs. But the two Communist neighbours normalised relations in 1991 and tensions have eased considerably in recent years.