Vietnam Shows ‘Disturbing’ Disregard for Human Rights, Says U.S. Agency

A U.S. government body denounced Vietnam this past week for what it described as the continuation of a “disturbing” disregard for basic human rights.

Sun, Sep. 28, 2008 Posted: 09:28 AM EDT


A U.S. government body denounced Vietnam this past week for what it described as the continuation of a “disturbing” disregard for basic human rights.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s comments come as police in Vietnam continue to inflict violence against protestors at peaceful vigils on properties formerly owned by the Catholic Church of Vietnam.

Also, authorities had arrested religious freedom advocates and detained pro-democracy activists earlier this month.

“Too often in Vietnam, individuals who peacefully organize and express views about religious freedom and human rights – and the freedoms required to protect them – are detained, arrested, or intimidated,” said USCIRF Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer.

“As a member of the U.N. Security Council, Vietnam should be upholding human rights fully and should not view peaceful actions to advance religious freedom as a security threat,” she stated.

Since December, Catholics in Hanoi have been holding prayer vigils at Catholic church properties to demand they be return to the Church. The properties were seized by the communist government in the mid-1950s.

There have been brief clashes with police, but over the past three weeks police have detained as many as eight protestors at a former monastery, according to reports. Security personnel also used batons to break up a silent vigil seeking the release of those arrested.

At least 12 people were briefly detained following the vigil and one priest had serious injuries.

USCIRF said it received “disturbing” reports of the Vietnamese government’s accusations against Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, who it claims incited protests, and its threats to take “extreme actions” to end the peaceful vigils.

The U.S. agency in particular highlighted the case of Li Thi Cong Nhan, who met with USCIRF late last year.

“It is outrageous that Li Thi Cong Nhan was ever arrested in the first place, and that she hasn’t been released,” Gaer said. “She and all prisoners of concern in Vietnam should be released immediately, without conditions, and without the frequent follow-on sentence of house arrest that Vietnamese authorities use to restrict the freedom of rights advocates.”

The U.S. Commission calls on the State Department to re-designate Vietnam as one of the worst violators of religious freedom by labeling it a Country of Particular Concern, and to release unconditionally all prisoners of concern.

Ethan Cole
Christian Post Reporter

Vietnam Shows ‘Disturbing’ Disregard for Human Rights, Says U.S. Agency| Christianpost.com

Archbishop of Hanoi: freedom of religion is a right, not a concession from the authorities

by J.B. An Dang

With a new campaign in the media, the authorities are trying to eliminate popular support for the Catholics. A gang of thugs threatens the faithful going to pray at Thai Ha, and even bursts into the church, shouting obscenities. Expressions of solidarity from the other dioceses of Vietnam, and also from the United States.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Freedom of religion is a human right, and not a favor granted by the government. This principle has been reiterated by various sources, in reply to the authorities of Hanoi which, as they continue their campaign of intimidation and abuse against the Catholics over the status of the former apostolic delegation and the parish of Thai Ha, are also seeking to eliminate popular support for them. This solidarity is arriving from outside of Hanoi, from other dioceses of the country, but also from abroad. The Vietnamese bishops are having the complete text of the statements by the archbishop of Hanoi read at every Mass. A prayer vigil has also been held in the United States, in California.

The campaign of violence and threats, meanwhile, has grown more severe. On Saturday, a gang of “state thugs” attacked the monastery of the Redemptorists in Hanoi. “In the afternoon”, says Fr Joseph Nguyen, “about 100 thugs began to threaten the people coming to pray at the church of Thai Ha. Then they entered the church shouting obscenities at those who were praying”. “This happened in broad daylight”, he adds, “right in front of a large number of policemen. When the parishioners asked the officers to intervene, they refused”. The Redemptorists were thus forced to shut the main entrance and cancel some of the scheduled activities.

That morning, Hanoi police officers had gone to Thai Ha to threaten “extreme actions”. “The police”, the priest says, “said that they are examining legal action against the Redemptorists, whom the authorities accuse of inciting and organizing protests among the faithful, to gain popular support for their cause”.

Precisely in order to oppose this “support”, the head of the people’s committee of Hanoi has recalled that Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet – who had gone to the committee to present a protest – “facilitated the religious activities of Catholics, especially at Christmas”. This has been presented by the state media, especially on television, as proof of the ingratitude of Catholics, who are subjected to a sort of public trial. “We knew”, the archbishop comments, “that the relaxation of restrictions on religious activities would come with conditions. But there seems to be a psychological attitude according to which, in response to a request, I grant you a favor. But religious freedom is a natural human right, and everyone has the right to enjoy it. A government ‘for the people’ must feel the responsibility of allowing everyone the means to enjoy it. It is not a favor granted upon request”.

On another front, the people’s committee of the district of Hoan Kiem, where the former apostolic delegation is located, has notified the archbishop of Hanoi that it has confiscated the statue of the Pietà, saying that it was brought inside the building for the first demonstration, before Christmas. In reality, the statue has been kept inside the building since before it was confiscated by the communists in 1959.

In many Vietnamese dioceses, solidarity is being shown with the Catholics of Hanoi, especially after the statement from the bishops’ conference in support of Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. In Haiphong, for example, the chancellor, Fr Paul Vu Dinh Viet, has provided for “the reading of the complete statement from the archbishop during the Sunday Masses, together with the necessary explanations”. in Ho Chi Minh City, where every parish carries out pastoral and social activities to advance the traditions of the local Church, the parish of Binh Thuan is organizing monthly meetings for young people. This month, about fifty of them gathered to talk about “the lives and faith of the young people of our time”.

The small groups examine and present the expectations of the young people to the parish. “This month”, the leader of one group tells AsiaNews, “we prayed for Church leaders, asking God to grant them peace and to help the bishop of Hanoi, the priests of Thai Ha, and the people there”. All of the groups have expressed their hope “that there may be peace in our lives, and that religion may not be discriminated against, that the human rights of all people be respected”.

Abroad, in California, in Orange County, Buddhists, Catholics, and representatives of other religious groups led hundreds of people in a prayer vigil (in the photo) for the Catholics of Hanoi, and called upon the Vietnamese government to put an end to the persecution against them. They were joined on Friday evening by numerous political representatives, like Senator Lou Correa, assemblymen Van Tran and Jose Solario, and other members of the Senate and assembly of the state of California, and others from Westminster, Garden Grove, and Santa Ana.

Fr John Tran Cong Nghi of the VietCatholic News Agency illustrated the developments in the situation of the former apostolic delegation of Hanoi and in Thai Ha, asking for “justice for illegally expropriated property”. “In Vietnam” he added, “many farmers and poor people have asked in vain for the restitution of their property. The authorities prefer to persecute them rather than caring for them. The right to private property is not taken into consideration, and moreover there is corruption and bribery, which have worsened the situation. The Church of Vietnam has always stood beside those who suffer injustice, to raise them up from their frustration and pain”.

“I am here with you tonight”, said Senator Lou Correa, “to ask the Vietnam communist government to respect human rights and justice, and to stop immediately all repression.”

J.B. Vu and Anthony Vu contributed to this report.
VIETNAM Archbishop of Hanoi: freedom of religion is a right, not a concession from the authorities – Asia News

In Ho Chi Minh City calls for justice and prayer for those who “persecute us”

7000 Vietnamese Catholics Gather for Prayer and Solidarity
By Ngo Quang Kiet
9/26/2008

Asia News

7,000 people took part in a prayer vigil during which participants express communion with Hanoi Catholics, victims of a vicious attack by city authorities and the Communist Party.

HO CHI MINH CITY (AsiaNews) – 7,000 Catholics held a vigil in Ho Chi Minh City during which they prayed for those who “persecute us”, urging people to leave the “house of violation,” expressing their communion with the archbishop of Hanoi and the priests of Thai Ha, increasingly targeted by more vicious attacks by Hanoi City authorities and the Communist Party.This is the largest demonstration ever seen since the Communists took over the city in 1975.

The vigil is taking place around our Mother of Perpetual Help Church. Many of the people who have come are young; they are here despite a memo sent by Nguyen Van Ngai, deputy director of the city’s Education Department, asking schools to “prevent bad elements among the students from participating in anti-government demonstrations.” Dated 24 September, the note urges official to pay close attention to the period that goes from 24 to 28 September.
This has raised concerns because the dates correspond to the time frame of a rumoured “drastic action” the authorities are said to be preparing against Catholics in Hanoi. In fact even the Bishops’ Council of Vietnam is ripe with such fears.

The vigil began at 7 pm but the area was already full by 6. Father Dominique celebrated Mass, urging “Vietnamese Catholics to leave the house of violation for the house of peace.” Catholics, he said, must “rid themselves of pressure, anger and hostility in order to love and pray for those who persecute us because they too are our brothers and sisters.We live in Jesus,” he added.In this context priests, men and women religious and the lay people prayed for Mgr Ngo Quang Kiet, archbishop of Hanoi; Fr Vu Khoi Phung, parish priest at Thai Ha; the Redemptorists and the clergy and laity living in the parish. They prayed for justice, peace and truth in Vietnam.

Sadly, the Vietnamese government and media have not understood what Catholics want.Like their fellow citizens Catholics want to see Vietnam develop its economy, culture, society and political stability.Instead in the last few days state-owned newspapers and TV stations have misinformed the public with regards to the “prayers for peace and justice offer by lay members of Thai Ha parish.”
The government is under the impression that the former are trying to challenge local authorities. City officials unleashed a mob of a hundred thugs who threatened people who came to their church to pray, shouted obscenities at men and women religious, spit in the face of one in particular, ransacked the church and shouted well into the night that they wanted to kill Father Phung and the archbishop.

In fact all that Catholics want is justice and peace from the nation’s leaders.During the vigil the statement issued by the archbishop of Hanoi was read out fully, unlike the distorted version reprinted in the print media.
Card Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, archbishop of the country’s largest city that was once known as Saigon, gave instructions for his colleague’s letter to be read out during Sunday Mass.People want the government to put an end to the press campaign against Catholic priests, faithful and Church; instead they want the authorities to respect their own laws and let the properties in dispute go back to their rightful owners.

Contribution by J. B. An Dang

Source: Asia News

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

Hanoi: Bishops, Clergy Face New Threats

Hanoi, Sep. 22, 2008 (CWNews.com) – The abrupt demolition of the building that once housed the office of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi– a building that government officials had promised to return to the Church– has sparked angry protests from the Vietnamese hierarchy.

At the same time, a propaganda campaign against Catholic protesting the demolition, organized by the state-controlled media, has prompted further protests. Church-state tensions continue to escalate: bishops are threatened with arrest; Redemptorist priests at a parish involved in another property dispute have even been threatened with death.

The media in Hanoi have charged that Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet is inciting riots by expressing his support for demonstrated who opposed the demolition process. The media have consistently depicted the demonstrators as threats to public safety.

In a letter to the government leaders of Vietnam, Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum, warned that this campaign of vilification could have grave consequences. “Our people are gentle and kind, easy to forget the past and forgive those who trespass against them.” However “when they find themselves being tricked, pushed to the corner, and persecuted… they can accept even death.”

The bishop warned government officials that “numerous of the weak and the poor have pleaded for years for the requisition of their properties but all in vain, as the authorities do not listen but persecute them!” He pleaded the government recognizing the legitimate concerns of the protestors, and “stop using the media to silence them.”

From Thai Binh, Bishop Francis Nguyen Van Sang said his heart was broken to hear the news that the nunciature was being razed, and he “wished to be able to rush to Hanoi” to be with archbishop Joseph Ngo and his faithful in this time of ordeal– but health problems prevented him from traveling. And Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan mourned the loss of “a souvenir of faith, a land stamped with the seal of the communion and love of the Catholic Church.”

The New Hanoi newspaper took a very different view. For the paper, the nunciature building is a symbol of Vatican, and its demolition is “a victory.” On Saturday, the paper could not hide its delight that a protest by Archbishop Ngo was in vain, saying that the prelate was acting “in desperate hope of finding a possible way to stop the demolition.” The resistance against demoliton, New Hanoi said, “goes against the will of the people.”

At the nunciature, construction workers worked throughout the night to demolish the building. Thousands of Catholics have protested around the clock.

Sunday morning saw the largest demonstration in the history of Vietnam since the Communist takeover, with hundreds of priests leading more than 10,000 Catholic protestors in a prayerful vigil outside the gate of the nunciature. Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan of Lang Son lead the prayers, as police accompanied by attack dogs patrolled the fence lined with barbed wire that had been installed at the site.

The Federation of Vietnamese Catholic Mass Media issued a statement of “deep concerns about religious and human-rights violations against Catholics.” Citing the property disputes at the nunciature and at a Redemptorist monastery in Thai Ha parish, the group confessed: “We are at our wit’s end as the injustice being done to our brothers and sisters in Christ– to the unarmed, religious people whose only weapon to protect themselves and property has always been praying with an unshaken belief in God.”

Still the government’s anti-Catholic campaign continued. The Hanoi People’s Committee accused Hanoi’s Archbishop Ngo of “smearing the state,” and said that his statements “have angered the people of the capital.” Such behavior, the group said, “must be punished severely.”

As if on cue, a large crowd appeared at the Thai Ha parish on Sunday, throwing stones, smashing statues, and shouting threats against the Redemptorist priests. One of the priests observed that “everything happened clearly in front of a large number of officials– police, security personnel, anti-riot police… but they did nothing to protect us.”

Source: EWTN News

Vietnam warns priests over land

By Nga Pham
BBC News

The four priests are from the parish of Thai Ha in Hanoi (BBC News)

The four priests are from the parish of Thai Ha in Hanoi (BBC News)

Vietnam has issued an official warning to four top priests at a Hanoi church that has been embroiled in a bitter land dispute with the local government.

The move followed a similar warning sent a day earlier to the city’s archbishop, Ngo Quang Kiet, threatening to take legal action against him.

The archbishop and priests are accused of “stirring the population” and encouraging illegal religious activity.

Many Roman Catholics have been involved in prayer vigils over the issue.

The vigils have attracted a lot of attention from the public in Vietnam, as well as Vietnamese communities overseas.

Disputed land

The four priests who received the warning on Monday are from the Thai Ha church, which the authorities have decided to confiscate and transform into a park.

On Monday scores of people entered the disputed land and, after a short scuffle with believers holding a vigil there, drove them away.

Vietnamese state media said the newcomers represented “local people” who had sought to express their frustration at the Catholics’ illegal activities.

They said police were despatched immediately to the site to ensure that violence did not erupt.

But the church claimed that the mobs attacked the believers and ransacked Thai Ha parish’s property while the police looked on.

Meanwhile a stand-off continues at another disputed site in Nha Chung, central Hanoi. In a sudden move, the government began bulldozing the land last Friday for the construction of a park and a public library.

The Hanoi diocese wants the one-hectare plot, which once served as Vatican embassy and residence, to be returned.

But the government has refused, citing that historical claims of lands subject to “land management and socialist land reform policies in place before 1991″ cannot be considered, according to Vietnamese law.

Mass prayers have been held since last December to protest against the policy.

The protests have put great pressure on the Hanoi government, which finds religious land disputes extremely difficult to deal with.

“If the government considered returning the lands to Thai Ha parish and the Hanoi Diocese, this would become an undesirable precedent for other Catholic organisations and individuals across the country. It would be extremely dangerous for the regime,” Nguyen Van Trung, a lawyer who has been involved in a number of land cases, told the BBC Vietnamese Service.

The authorities have resorted to the safer solution of turning both disputed sites into public parks “to serve the people’s interest”.

But at the moment it does not seem to have satisfied the Catholic protesters, who claim that the lands are sacred to them.

Source: BBC

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

Catholics In Vietnam Fight State In Land Dispute

September 22, 2008 · In communist Vietnam, there’s a new skirmish in the long-standing conflict between the state and the Catholic Church.

Listen now: Catholics In Vietnam Fight State In Land Dispute by Michael Sullivan

Parishioners gathered in the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi, Vietnam. The church is mobilizing its followers in a land dispute with the government. Many people at the service were bused in from nearby provinces (Michael Sullivan/NPR)

Parishioners gathered in the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi, Vietnam. The church is mobilizing its followers in a land dispute with the government. Many people at the service were bused in from nearby provinces (Michael Sullivan/NPR)

There are an estimated 6 million Catholics in Vietnam — it’s the second-largest Roman Catholic population in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.

While relations between the church and state have improved over the past several years, disputes over land are now threatening those gains. The church is locked in a bitter dispute with the state over land that both claim as their own.

Mobilizing Followers

At a midmorning Mass at the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi in mid-September, the windows were opened wide so that those sitting outside, fanning themselves in the sweltering heat, could listen in and take part. It was standing room only.

Midmorning Mass is not normal, but these are not normal times. The church is mobilizing its followers — and many people at the service were bused in from nearby provinces.

The priest said that the prayers were for their brothers and sisters who have been arrested or detained in the past few weeks. The priest said they were praying they will be freed and that the land that belongs to the church will be returned.

That land — a large vacant lot, recently razed, that developers are hungry to build on — is next door to the church. It’s land the government says the church gave up voluntarily more than 50 years ago.

Last month, parishioners broke through a brick wall surrounding the lot and staked their claim to the land by erecting statues of the Virgin Mary, several crucifixes and other religious icons.

The Makeshift Shrine

Parishioners erected a makeshift shrine on the disputed land next to the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi (Michael Sullivan/NPR)

Parishioners erected a makeshift shrine on the disputed land next to the Thai Ha Church in Hanoi (Michael Sullivan/NPR)

During the Mass in September, parishioners came to pray at the makeshift shrine, while about a dozen women sat under umbrellas off to the side chanting for peace. Plainclothes police were everywhere, busily snapping pictures.

“During the day, there aren’t that many people here, but in the evening there will be thousands,” says Nguyen Van Khai, 38, one of the priests. “They don’t fear being arrested, or detained or dying. All they want — all we want — is justice, for the land that was taken from us to be returned.”

The priest says last month police used tear gas and stun guns against some parishioners. The charges were denied by the police.

The vice chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, Vu Hong Khanh, rejects any allegations of wrongdoing by the government and is adamant the church has no legal claim to the land.

“In the last month, we have confirmed that priests and parishioners from Thai Ha continue to ignore the law by inciting people to hold vigils and to reclaim the land near Thai Ha Church,” Vu Hong Khanh says.

Criminal charges have been filed against eight parishioners now in police custody.

Challenging The Government

This is the second time this year that Vietnam’s Catholics have openly challenged the government.

In January, thousands gathered outside St. Joseph’s cathedral, the city’s largest, demanding the return of land where the Vatican Embassy once stood. The vigils ended after the government and church officials agreed to sit down and discuss the issue.

On Sept. 18, government officials abruptly informed church leaders that the land would be turned into a park. Construction started the next morning. Church leaders were not amused, and they say they will keep trying to get the land returned.

It’s not clear how either dispute will be resolved.

But the fact they’ve gotten this far is an indication of how much Vietnam has changed in the years since its leaders decided to embrace market reforms and court foreign investment.

A Changing Vietnam

The government is also more sensitive to world opinion than it was in the past. The Internet, too, is helping change and shape people’s attitudes.

Those who directly challenge the party’s legitimacy, and authority, are still ruthlessly suppressed. But other expressions of discontent are now tolerated more than in the past.

Factory workers can now strike for — and get — better wages. Disgruntled farmers can, and do, organize protests against what they see as unfair compensation for land seized by the state.

Nguyen Tang Xuan, deputy chairman of the government’s religious affairs committee, says the church and state may yet work out a compromise.

Vietnam doesn’t have much land, he says, but it has four times as many people now as 100 years ago. So there’s no question of returning any land to the church.

However, Nguyen Tang Xuan says the government may consider reallocating some government land for the church to use, although not to own. But it would have to be done legally, he says, not the way they’re acting at Thai Ha — where he says they’re behaving like a mob.
Catholics In Vietnam Fight State In Land Dispute : NPR


Vietnam Catholics rally outside land claimed by church

Hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics have gathered in Hanoi to pray in front of police barricades blocking off land claimed by the church.

Vietnamese authorities occupied the land on Friday and began building a public park intensifying a row between the country’s Catholic community and its rulers.

The prime site in the heart of the capital Hanoi was the Vatican’s embassy before it was taken over by the city’s communist rulers following the departure of the French in the 1950s.

Catholic clergy and parishioners began holding mass rallies at the end of last year demanding the state return the land.

The protests ended earlier this year when the government agreed to resolve the problem, but Catholics say nothing has changed since then.

Source: ABC Radio Australia

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