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.

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

AP reporter detained, beaten by police in Vietnam

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — An Associated Press reporter in Vietnam was punched, choked and hit over the head with a camera by police who detained him Friday while he covered a Catholic prayer vigil in the communist country.

Ben Stocking, the Hanoi bureau chief for The Associated Press, was released from police custody after about 2 1/2 hours and required four stitches on the back of his head. His camera was confiscated by police.

“They told me I was taking pictures in a place that I was not allowed to be taking pictures. But it was news, and I went in,” Stocking said by telephone from Hanoi.

Stocking, 49, was covering a demonstration by Catholic priests and church members at the site of the former Vatican Embassy in Hanoi, which is currently the subject of a land dispute between the church and city authorities.

The city had started to clear the site Friday after announcing a day earlier that it planned to use the land for a public library and park — a significant development in an already tense relationship between the church and state in Hanoi.

After Vietnam’s communist government took power in 1954, it confiscated property from many landowners, including the Catholic Church. The church says it has documents showing it has title to the land.

Within minutes of arriving at the prayer vigil, Stocking said, he was escorted away by plainclothes police who took his camera and punched and kicked him when he asked for it back.

Taken to a police station for questioning, Stocking tried to reach for his camera and an officer “banged me on the head with the camera and another police officer punched me in the face, straight on.” The blow from the camera opened a gash at the back of his head.

Transferred to another police station to give a written statement, Stocking was permitted to leave with a U.S. Embassy official to be taken to a medical clinic.

The AP is protesting the incident, seeking an apology from Vietnamese authorities involved and insisting on the return of Stocking’s property.

“It is an egregious incident of police abuse and unacceptable treatment of a journalist by any civilized government authority,” said John Daniszewski, the AP’s managing editor for international news. “Ben Stocking was doing his job in a calm, reasonable and professional manner when he was escorted away and violently assaulted.”

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Angela Aggeler said a formal statement of protest was filed with the Foreign Ministry.

The Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone requests by the AP seeking comment.

Violence is rare against international journalists in Vietnam, which has strict controls that govern press activities and travel. Foreign media have to register with the Foreign Ministry and get permission to go to remote provinces.

The first portion of Stocking’s arrest was captured by an anonymous cameraman and posted on YouTube.

The Associated Press: AP reporter detained, beaten by police in Vietnam